‘Mass murder’: New report says air pollution from fossil fuel combustion causing 4.5 million deaths each year

“Moving our energy generation sector from fossil fuels to renewables is an essential step towards preventing catastrophic climate change and protecting our health.”

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SOURCECommon Dreams

The burning of fossil fuels is responsible for 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide annually and costs the world $8 billion daily, research released Tuesday found, underscoring the cruelty and fiscal folly of the Trump administration’s energy agenda. 

The report from Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) concerns air pollution from fossil fuel combustion including fine particulate matter (abbreviated to PM2.5), ozone (O3), and nitrogen dioxide (or NO2), with particulate matter causing the biggest health risks and greatest financial costs.

Exposure to those pollutants has previously been linked to diseases including ischaemic heart disease (IHD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, premature birth (preterm birth), type II diabetes, stroke, and asthma, the report notes.

For the young and old, adverse health effects from the air pollutants could mean a life cut short.

From the report:

The CREA/Greenpeace analysis suggests that an estimated 3 million premature adult deaths each year are attributed to cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and lung cancer through exposure to PM2.5 air pollution from fossil fuels. An estimated 500,000 premature deaths from chronic diseases are attributed to fossil fuel-related NO2 pollution and 1 million premature deaths are attributed to fossil fuel-related ozone pollution annually. Combined, total premature deaths per year attributable to fossil fuel-related air pollution is estimated at 4.5 million.

The data calculated for this report estimates that 40,000 children may die before their fifth birthday due to illnesses related to exposure to PM2.5 from fossil fuels and shows that those deaths occur mainly in low-income countries.

Higher-income countries aren’t immune to the problem, with the report calculating 398,000 annual premature deaths in the European Union and 230,000 deaths in the U.S. attributed to fossil fuel combustion-caused air pollution.

“The fossil fuel industry is committing mass murder and the Trump administration is helping them get away with it,” said Greenpeace USA climate campaign director Janet Redman. “In the United States and around the world, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are the first to feel the impacts of extraction and exploitation, including the devastating consequences of air pollution.”

The health impacts also come with a hefty economic price tag, as they lead to work absences and costs for disease treatment and management.

According to the report, 7.7 million asthma-related trips to the emergency room per year are attributable to exposure to fossil fuel-caused particulate matter and ozone. Fine particulate matter alone, the report adds, is behind roughly 1.8 billion days of sick leave annually.

“The cost of fossil fuel air pollution equates to a large percentage of many nations’ GDP,” the report says, putting the figure for China Mainland at 6.6%.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the economic costs are an estimated $610,000 annually, according to the report’s assessment.

The good news is that taking steps to address this pollution goes in tandem with addressing the climate crisis. Measures for that win-win scenario including a phaseout of fossil fuels and a shift away from private transportation to carbon neutral transportation systems that include improved public transit and better infrastructure for walking and biking.

The solutions for tackling the fossil fuel pollution also make good economic sense. The report references the Clean Air Act in the U.S., which offered “substantially greater economic benefits in relation to the costs of implementation, and the benefits exceeded a ratio of 30:1 over the period 1990–2020. Put another way, for every U.S. $1 invested, the U.S. economy saw benefits of at least US$30 returned.”  

According to Redman, “We all deserve a world beyond fossil fuels: a world in which workers’ safety, community health, and our shared climate come before corporate profits. Trump and the oil lobbyists in his cabinet are standing in the way of that future.”

The bottom line is that achieving that future is both doable and urgent.

“Moving our energy generation sector from fossil fuels to renewables is an essential step towards preventing catastrophic climate change and protecting our health,” says the report. “A just transition to renewable energy is feasible, and we can’t afford to wait any longer. Cities, governments, and companies need to take action now.”

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