Photo by: Pixabay user marcinjozwiak

Fossil fuel air pollution responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide

02/09/2021 | Environmental Research

New research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, significantly higher than previous research suggested—meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.

The study, “Global Mortality From Outdoor Fine Particle Pollution Generated by Fossil Fuel Combustion,” published in Environmental Research, is based on a groundbreaking analysis that enabled the researchers to directly attribute premature deaths from fine particulate pollution (PM 2.5) to fossil fuel combustion.

“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” said Dr. Joel Schwartz, Professor at Harvard Chan School and co-author of the study. “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.”

The findings underscore the detrimental impact of fossil fuels on global health.

“The health gains we can achieve from getting off fossil fuels is twice what we thought it was yesterday,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard Chan School. “The Global Burden of Disease study estimated deaths from fossil fuels numbered 4.2 million in 2015, but thanks to more rigorous science, we can now see that fossil fuels cause far more harm than previously understood. Now more than ever we can see the healthier, more just and sustainable world that climate actions can deliver.”

Key Takeaways

    • Worldwide, air pollution from burning fossil fuels is responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths—roughly the population of New York City.
    • In the United States 350,000 premature deaths are attributed to fossil fuel pollution. The states with the highest number of deaths per capita are PA, OH, MI, IN, KY, WV, IL, NJ, WI
    • Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy has immediate health benefits, including preventing premature deaths attributed to fossil fuel pollution.
    • Exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuels accounted for 21.5% of total deaths in 2012, falling to 18% in 2018 due to tightening air quality measures in China
    • In India, fossil fuel pollution was responsible for nearly 2.5 million people (aged over 14)  in 2018; representing over 30% of total deaths in India among people over age 14
    • Thousands of kids under age 5 die each year due to respiratory infections attributed to fossil fuel pollution

Authors

  • Karn Vohra, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  • Alina Vodonos, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA, USA
  • Joel Schwartz, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA, USA
  • Eloise A. Marais, Department of Geography, University College London, London, UK
  • Melissa P. Sulprizio, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
  • Loretta J. Mickley, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

The study was supported by the Wallace Global Fund, the Environment and Health Fund (EHF) Israel, and University of Birmingham Global Challenges PhD studentship.

Related

The 2022 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief for the U.S.

Climate change puts everyone at risk, but policy decisions and industry actions make some communities more vulnerable to the harms of climate change.

Read Now

Home is Where the Pipeline Ends

Our study is the first to test for health-damaging air pollutants in unburned natural gas where it is used: in our homes.

Read Now

2021 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: U.S. Policy Report

Our response to climate change must prioritize and optimize health and equity. We can improve health through climate actions that reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Read Now

Methane Reductions in the Oil and Gas Sector can Protect Public Health

A literature review examines the last ten years of research on methane and health-damaging air pollutant emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Read Now

Negative impacts of burning natural gas and biomass have surpassed coal generation in many states

A new inventory of air pollution impacts from stationary sources over the past decade shows this trend may continue.

Read Now

Pennsylvania setback regulations for fracking do not prevent setback incidents

The first study to look at the effectiveness of PA's statewide setback regulations and identify the potential risks and exposures for people living near fracking or UNG wells.

Read Now

Pollution from fossil fuel combustion deadlier than previously thought

Fine particulate pollution from fossil fuel combustion was responsible for one in five early deaths worldwide in 2018, with vulnerable groups at greatest risk.

Read Now

Fossil fuel air pollution responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide

New research finds that deaths from fossil fuel emissions are higher than previously thought—more than 8 million people per year, worldwide.

Read Now

'We Don't Have To Live This Way': Doctors Call For Climate Action

A sprawling analysis published by The Lancet focuses on public health data from 2019, and finds that heat waves, air pollution and extreme weather increasingly damage human health.

Read Now

Study: Regional transportation pact could save more than 1,000 lives

A regional initiative among 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states aimed at reducing carbon emissions from transportation could help avoid about 1,100 deaths and nearly 5,000 asthma cases each year, and could save more than $11 billion in health costs, according to a new analysis.

Read Now

Estimating Public Health Impacts from Individual Power Plants

A tool to help policy-makers design policies and interventions.

Read Now

Health Co-Benefits of Carbon Standards for Existing Power Plants

Analyzing the clean air and health benefits of power plant carbon standards in the U.S.

Read Now

Costs and Health Co-Benefits for a U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standard

Reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants can have important “co-benefits” for public health by reducing emissions of air pollutants.

Read Now

Op-ed: McCarthy urges action on a warming climate

Although the latest news on climate change paints a dire picture, Gina McCarthy of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that states, cities, and individuals can take action to cut the carbon emissions that are driving the warming climate. In a commentary on WBUR’s “Cognoscenti,” McCarthy, director of the Center for Climate, Health,…

Read Now

Less mercury in the environment since tougher emissions rules enacted

Mercury has declined significantly in the air, water, and soil, and in U.S. freshwater and Atlantic Ocean fisheries. Weakening emissions rules could impede progress.

Read Now

Eggs

Long-vilified for their high cholesterol content by well-meaning doctors and scientists researching heart disease, eggs now seem to be making a bit of a comeback. So what changed? While it’s true that just one large egg yolk has 200 mg of cholesterol—making it one of the richest sources of dietary cholesterol—eggs also contain additional nutrients…

Read Now