Air pollution, particularly tiny particles called PM2.5 are responsible for the premature death of 4 million people around the world every year. New research shows that about half of those deaths are a consequence of the economic consumption habits of just 11 G20 nations.
The international team looked at the impact of economic consumption on 199 nations' air pollution and the health issues it causes. Using this they were able to model a global footprint of PM2.5-driven premature deaths, publishing their findings in Nature Communications. Most of these deaths are in low-income countries but they come from the production requirements that feed consumers in just 11 of the 19 nations (the EU is the other) in the G20 group.
PM2.5 means particulate matter from pollution that is less than 2.5 microns wide, which is particularly dangerous because these particles are small enough to bypass the body's defenses and can penetrate deep into the lungs or bloodstream causing severe health issues, including cancer and death. Nations tend to broadly acknowledge how much their factories and cars are a source of PM2.5 but the researchers argue that there is little understanding on the responsibility for the creation of these pollutants when it comes to imported goods.
The study looked at data from 2010, the last year for which all figures were available for the G20 nations. The G20 represents around three-quarters of international trade. The researchers sought to quantify each nations' consumer responsibility for global mortality due to PM2.5 particles and found that the G20 nations were responsible for 1.983 million premature deaths, including an average of 78,600 infant deaths. On average, across a lifetime, 28 people in a G20 nation will claim one life due to their consumption.
The most number of premature deaths were in China, India, the US, Russia, and Indonesia. The US is the only nation in the top 5 that is a G20 nation, however, the consumption of goods in the US and 10 other nations in the G20 resulted in half the premature PM2.5-related deaths reported in other countries.
“Most deaths are in developing countries, and without international coordination the situation will worsen,” co-lead author Dr Keisuke Nansai, from the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan, said in a statement.
The research team found that similar to COVID-19, elderly people were the most susceptible to air pollution. The second most susceptible group was infants. “We found that the consumption of G20 nations was responsible for 78 000 premature deaths of infants [up to 5 years old] worldwide,” noted Nansai.
The team urges a global push to tackle air pollution after their findings. “Pollution in the form of production emissions creates a motive to implement joint PM2.5 reduction measures in neighbouring countries," noted Nansai. "Such cooperation is unlikely among countries that are geographically distinct.”
Tackling air pollution will be one of the hot topics discussed at the ongoing COP26 climate conference for the next week, as coal power plants and cars produce both particulate and greenhouse gases.