New research shows that up to 18 percent of all the deaths in the world in 2018 were due to exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions. That’s over eight million people killed by fossil fuel pollution in 2018 alone. The study is published in Environmental Research.
This work almost doubles the estimated number of deaths from air pollution. According to the most recent Global Burden of Disease Study, the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global mortality, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) related to smoking and air pollution is the sixth most common cause of death in the world.
“Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health. We can’t in good conscience continue to rely on fossil fuels, when we know that there are such severe effects on health and viable, cleaner alternatives,” co-author Professor Eloise Marais, from the University College London, said in a statement.
The estimate was based on new approaches to satellite data. Using these observations from orbit, the research team could estimate the amount annual concentrations of airborne particulate matter, known as PM2.5. These observations alone are not enough to distinguish the source of these emissions so that particulate from fossil fuels can be separated from dust, wildfires, and others.
The team employed a global 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry called GEOS-Chem which has been employed in similar studies as well. The data and tools allowed for the division of regions into blocks as small as 50 by 60 kilometers (31 by 37 miles)
“Rather than rely on averages spread across large regions, we wanted to map where the pollution is and where people live, so we could know more exactly what people are breathing,” explained lead author Karn Vohra, a graduate researcher at the University of Birmingham.
The combined analysis provided a measure of how concentrated outdoor fossil-fuel PM2.5 is across the world. The team used a new risk assessment model to estimate how these particulates affect human health. They found higher mortality for long-term exposure even at lower concentrations.
“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlooks the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases. We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources,” co-author Professor Joel Schwartz, from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-developer of the new model.
Regions that are seeing the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution include Eastern North America, Europe, and South-East Asia. But it is not all bad news. The researchers estimated that China’s decision to cut its fossil fuel emissions by almost 50 percent likely saved 2.4 million lives worldwide in 2018 alone.