Researchers estimate that toxic air produced by burning fossil fuels causes an estimated 4.5 million premature deaths a year
Burning fossil fuels is not just driving climate change, it is also generating an air pollution crisis that is wiping trillions of dollars from the world economy every year.
That is the conclusion of a new report this week from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), produced in partnership with Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Researchers at CREA combined global datasets covering surface level concentrations of PM2.5, ozone and NO2 with recent research quantifying the contribution of fossil fuels to global air pollution levels to perform a health impact assessment and subsequent cost calculation for the year 2018. The resulting figures revealed a global cost of air pollution from fossil fuels of $8bn per day, or $2.9tr a year, the equivalent of 3.3 per cent of global GDP.
Among the biggest contributors to this economic cost is the impact on healthcare systems, the research adds, with air pollution from fossil fuels estimated to cause 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year. The report brands fossil fuel air pollution “a major health threat to children, particularly in low income countries”, estimating that 40,000 children die before their fifth birthday because of exposure to PM2.5 pollution.
The report also finds that exposure to PM2.5 and ozone from fossil fuels is responsible for an estimated 7.7 million asthma-related trips to emergency rooms every year, alongside 1.8 billion days of sick leave.
Other pollutants also pose a threat. NO2, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion in vehicles, power plants, and factories, is linked to roughly four million new cases of asthma in children each year, with approximately 16 million children worldwide living with asthma due to exposure to NO2 pollution from fossil fuels, the research finds.
Mainland China, the US, and India bear the highest costs from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide, the report finds, shouldering an estimated $900bn, $600bn, and $150bn in annual losses respectively.
While the figures are bleak, the report argues that “solutions are increasingly available and affordable. Moreover, many solutions for tackling fossil fuel related air pollution are also required to address climate change. The transition to renewable energy can both slash toxic air pollution and limit global temperature increases, it argues, citing a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that an accelerated fossil fuel phaseout and investment in clean energy sources could reduce premature deaths related to air pollution worldwide by up to nearly two thirds.
In addition, decarbonising transport – both electrifying vehicles and rewiring public transport systems to encourage walking and cycling – not only reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but also correlates with decreases in cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, mental illness, and respiratory disease more broadly, research shows.
A string of recent studies have shown the extent of the air pollution crisis in the UK. Analysis of government figures by green campaign group ClientEarth found that four-fifths of areas in the UK still breach EU standards for nitrogen dioxide pollution. Data from King’s College Hospital at the end of last year showed how hospitalisations spiked on days when air pollution is at its worst.