The Hidden Toll: Fossil Fuels' 5 Million Annual Deaths from Air Pollution

The Hidden Toll: Fossil Fuels' 5 Million Annual Deaths from Air Pollution
Source: The Guardian

The use of fossil fuels for energy is causing the deaths of 5 million people globally each year, a much higher mortality rate than previously thought, according to the largest study of its kind. Published on the eve of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, these alarming statistics will intensify the pressure on world leaders to take decisive action. One of the key decisions they face at the UN conference is whether to agree, for the first time, to gradually phase out the use of fossil fuels.

A recently conducted modeling study, featured in The BMJ, indicates that air pollution resulting from the utilization of fossil fuels in industry, power generation, and transportation leads to 5.1 million avoidable deaths annually worldwide. This contribution from fossil fuels represents 61% of the total estimated 8.3 million deaths globally due to outdoor air pollution from all sources in 2019. These new estimates of deaths linked to fossil fuel use surpass most previously reported figures, underscoring the potential for a more significant impact on attributable mortality through the phased-out use of fossil fuels.

The researchers emphasize that transitioning from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources could not only save numerous lives from air pollution but also contribute to the fight against global heating. The study's results challenge prior mortality estimates that varied widely. The researchers argue that a global phase-out of fossil fuels would yield substantial health benefits, surpassing the expectations set by most previous studies. They advocate for an increased share of clean, renewable energy, aligning with the UN's sustainable development goals for 2030 and the aspiration for climate neutrality by 2050.

While ambient air pollution remains the primary environmental health risk factor for illness and death, global studies attributing deaths to specific air pollution sources have been limited and yielded disparate results. To address this gap, an international team of researchers from the UK, US, Germany, Spain, and Cyprus employed a new model to estimate deaths associated with air pollution from fossil fuels. Their analysis also assessed the potential health benefits of policies replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources. Utilizing data from the Global Burden of Disease 2019 study, NASA satellite-based fine particulate matter and population data, as well as atmospheric chemistry, aerosol, and relative risk modeling for 2019, they determined the excess deaths attributable to air pollution related to fossil fuels

The findings reveal that, in 2019, 8.3 million global deaths were associated with fine particles (PM2.5) and ozone (O3) in the surrounding air, with 61% (5.1 million) of these deaths linked to fossil fuel emissions.

The researchers emphasized that significant reductions in air pollution, particularly through the gradual elimination of fossil fuels, could yield substantial positive health outcomes. They noted that the mortality burden attributed to air pollution from fossil fuel usage surpasses the majority of previous estimates. The researchers explained that one reason for their model producing larger estimates compared to prior studies is its exclusive reliance on outdoor air pollution data. While uncertainties persist, the researchers stressed that in light of the Paris Climate Agreement's aim for climate neutrality by 2050, the shift from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources could bring significant public health and climate-related advantages.