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Fossil Fuel Pollution Caused Nearly 1 in 5 Premature Deaths in 2018, Study Finds

Researchers hope quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuels will push legislators toward favoring clean energy.

Electricity pylons are seen in front of the cooling towers of a coal-fired power station in Weisweiler, western Germany, on January 26, 2021.

A new study has found that burning fossil fuels has caused millions more premature deaths annually due to particulate matter that’s released in the combustion of fuels like coal and oil.

Researchers at universities in the U.K. and at Harvard University estimated that, in 2018, 8.7 million people died prematurely due to pollution released by fossil fuels, or about 18 percent of total global deaths that year. This is nearly double previous estimates of 4.2 million deaths annually around the globe attributable to fossil fuel pollution.

The researchers say that policy changes to burn less fossil fuels in China prevented millions of premature deaths. In 2012, they estimated that 10.2 million premature deaths were caused annually by pollution from fossil fuel burning, but the country’s reduction in particulate matter pollution from 2012 to 2018 reduced the number of premature deaths drastically.

The researchers were staggered by the high numbers. “We were initially very hesitant when we obtained the results because they are astounding, but we are discovering more and more about the impact of this pollution,” Eloise Marais, one of the study’s co-authors, told the Guardian. “It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”

To get these estimates, the researchers used what they found to be a more precise way of measuring global pollution and attributing it to fossil fuel burning. While previous studies have used satellite imagery and averages from surface observations, the researchers used global models driven by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration data that allow for smaller areas of study.

Most of these deaths annually occur in Eastern Asia, with China shouldering a large portion. Despite efforts to cut emissions, China is still responsible for a large fraction of global emissions, though the U.S. still holds the lead on the most emissions per capita. After Eastern Asia, Europe, Canada and the U.S. account for the greatest number of pollution-related deaths per year, the study finds.

“While emission rates are dynamic, increasing with industrial development or decreasing with successful air quality policies, China’s air quality changes from 2012 to 2018 are the most dramatic because population and air pollution there are both large,” said Marais.

The researchers say they hope that their research, which further adds to a mountain of existing evidence that the use of fossil fuels is bad for global health, will push policymakers to shift to clean energy.

“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 co-author Joel Schwartz. “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.”

Particulate matter pollution has long been established to have impacts on health. Exposure to fine particulate matter has been linked to heart attacks, asthma and poor respiratory health.

Though this study only includes data from before the pandemic, recent studies have shown that air pollution, exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels, has made the pandemic worse for some communities. Because people with poor respiratory health are particularly impacted by COVID, exposure to pollution over many years has aggravated that vulnerability for some; this is especially a problem in frontline communities with more of a pollution burden than others.

Better energy policy, some say, could help to prevent these deaths from reoccurring year by year. “There’s a vaccine for the 8.7 million deaths caused each year by air pollution from fossil fuels. That vaccine is called solar panels and wind turbines,” tweeted Bill McKibben.

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