Air Pollution From Fossil Fuels Causes More Than Five Million Deaths

Air Pollution

To curb global warming, humanity must significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This primarily involves minimizing the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. The transition to renewable energy sources would not only benefit the environment but also improve public health. Worldwide, air pollution is responsible for numerous premature deaths, with an estimated 8.3 million people dying in 2019 due to particulate matter and ozone pollution.

A recent study published in the BMJ journal determined the proportion of deaths attributed to fossil fuel combustion. The Max-Planck-Institut für Chemie in Mainz’s atmospheric chemist Andrea Pozzer led the international research team in applying a new model. According to their calculations, the use of fossil fuels in industry, transportation, and power generation is responsible for about 61% of air pollution-related deaths, or 5.1 million deaths annually.

Switching to clean, renewable energy sources could prevent these additional fatalities. This is crucial for the upcoming COP 28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates. In 2020, renewable energy will contribute to 28% of global electricity generation. The benefits of phasing out fossil fuels should be a top priority, according to experts. However, the success of this endeavor is uncertain given the leadership role of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the head of the state-owned oil company Adnoc.

Physiological Impact

Air pollution contributes to inflammation and oxidative stress in the human body, leading to processes associated with aging. “Poor air quality” results in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, affecting the nervous system, metabolism, mental health, and reproduction. A group of Scandinavian health researchers not involved in the study emphasized that the gradual abandonment of fossil fuel use would yield health benefits extending beyond reduced premature mortality, promoting overall well-being and longer, healthier lives.

The calculated number of deaths in this model is higher than previously estimated figures for the share of fossil fuels. The energy transition is expected to make a significant contribution to reducing mortality. Previous studies attributing deaths to specific pollution sources were limited, and their results varied.

The data used in this study are from a 2019 analysis of disease and mortality combined with population data, fine particulate matter values from NASA, and four risk models for aerosols and chemical compounds in the atmosphere. Depending on the scenario, humanity could eliminate fossil fuel emissions or reduce them by 25 or 50 percent. The fourth scenario represents a more ambitious goal: the complete removal of all human-induced sources of air pollution, leaving only natural sources like wildfires and desert dust.

Preventing Deaths

Strokes (30%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (16%), and diabetes (6%), which account for the majority of air pollution-related fatalities, are next. Approximately 20% may be associated with conditions such as high blood pressure and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In the European Union, which contributed to the study’s funding, an estimated 253,000 people die annually due to air polluted with fine particulate matter and ozone. According to the new study, transitioning away from fossil fuels would particularly benefit South and East Asia, where most deaths from pollution occur. In China, 2.44 million people die annually from pollution from fossil sources, and in India, it’s 2.18 million. More than 80% of these deaths could potentially be prevented by sealing all anthropogenic sources of air pollution.

The researchers also found that high-income countries, which are mostly dependent on fossil fuels, could experience significant benefits. Transitioning away from fossil fuels could prevent 460,000 deaths annually, accounting for 90% of avoidable deaths due to human-induced air pollution. The authors of the companion article, under the direction of Finnish health researcher Heli Lehtomäki, emphasize the need for high-income nations to commit to taking the lead at COP 28 in Dubai.