Climate change is not the only consequence of the burning of fossil fuels. A study published last week in the journal Cardiovascular Research estimated that in 2015, the deaths of more than 3.6 million people worldwide could have been avoided if air pollution from fossil fuels were reduced to zero.
These numbers are staggering. They equate to about 10,000 deaths per day, every day, under the study’s mean estimates. Excess deaths from fossil fuel air pollution comprises about 40% of all air pollution deaths. The estimates in this new study are about twice as large as past estimates of excess mortality from air pollution.
Overall, the authors claim that the loss of life expectancy globally “from air pollution surpasses that of HIV/AIDS, parasitic, vector-borne, and other infectious diseases by a large margin. It exceeds the [loss of life expectancy] due to all forms of violence by an order of magnitude and that of smoking by a third.”Today In: Energy
The study finds that “the mortality from air pollution is dominated by East Asia (35%) and South Asia (32%), followed by Africa (11%) and Europe (9%).” China and India lead the way with an estimated 1.6 million and 700,000 deaths, respectively, in 2015. The United States ranks third, with almost 200,000 deaths in 2015. Europe, as a whole, had an estimated 430,000 deaths. Air pollution mortality is global, as air pollution occurs everywhere.
Air pollution is also a silent killer and thus easy to overlook. It ends life prematurely, particularly for those with heart or lung diseases. The study’s authors note that “Humans typically fear violence most, but rational evaluation shows that, only in exceptional cases (Syria, Afghanistan, Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela)” is the risk of violence to human health greater than that of air pollution.
The burning of fossil fuels includes “includes emissions from power generation, industry, traffic, and residential energy use” but also includes the small-scale burning of biomass (like wood) and coal, particularly in residences in some parts of the world for cooking and heating. Modern society is built on fossil fuels, but fortunately technological and societal innovations have created alternatives for many of the applications of fossil fuels, including the production of electricity and many forms of transportation.
For most people, recognizing the large effects of air pollution on human health has no doubt been masked by the long-term trend of increasing human lifespans – which in no small part has been driven by energy consumption from fossil fuels. But as the paper notes, “The global mean life expectancy increased from 52 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2015 (and 80 years in high-income countries), but in many low-income countries, including sub-Saharan Africa, it is still below 60 years.”
The new estimates of mortality from air pollution due to fossil fuels reinforce another recent study which estimated the air pollution consequences of Germany’s nuclear phase-out. That study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, focused on the shut-down of 10 of Germany’s nuclear power plants from 2011 to 2017.
The NBER study found that “the switch from nuclear power to fossil fuel-fired production resulted in substantial increases in global and local air pollution emissions.” A key reason for the increased air pollution was that “lost nuclear production was replaced by electricity production from coal- and gas-fired sources in Germany as well as electricity imports from surrounding countries.”
The study concluded that “the phase-out resulted in more than 1,100 additional deaths per year” due to excess mortality from the consequences of increased air pollution. Since 2011 that totals more than 10,000 deaths, far more than all deaths attributable to nuclear power in history.
The study’s authors observe that the additional risks to human health created by the nuclear phase-out create tensions for policymakers, who must deal with public pressures on climate change at the same time that nuclear power is deeply unpopular in some places, like Germany. When it comes to energy technologies, there are no simple choices – trade-offs are inevitable.
The burning of fossil fuels has many consequences. The health effects of air pollution are often overlooked in policy debates over energy transitions in favor of the long-term consequences of climate change, which are often projected to the end of the century. But air pollution effects are a clear, short-term impact, scientifically well-supported, and without the political overlay that often accompanies debates over climate.
Consequently, the importance of reducing air pollution deaths might occupy a greater role in policy debates that are centered on climate change. Air pollution policies have in the past largely focused on making fossil fuel burning cleaner, but it may be time to include a focus on more rapidly phasing-out of fossil fuels as a central element of air pollution policies.
Consider that by 2030, based on a simple extension into the future of these new research results, more than 35 million people worldwide may die from air pollution-related health effects resulting from fossil fuel combustion. This is about the combined population of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio San Diego, Dallas, San Jose plus the entire state of Colorado.
The question to ask is not whether the benefits of fossil fuel use exceeds its costs in terms of air pollution deaths. The more relevant policy question to ask is whether the benefits of transitioning off of fossil fuels exceeds the human costs of continuing to burn coal, oil and natural gas.
We do not need any other reason beyond the health effects of air pollution to more rapidly transition to cleaner sources of energy, including nuclear power, with far less human impact. If such a transition also reduces the risks of long-term climate change, so much the better. The mathematics here are simple: no air pollution from fossil fuels, no excess mortality.