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Air pollution from fossil fuels costs USD 8 billion a day

A new study by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air shows that air pollution emitted from burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, oil and gas, causes approximately 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year.

The study focusses on particulate matter (PM₂.₅), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and ozone (O₃), as elevated levels of these pollutants increase the incidence of chronic and acute illnesses and contribute to millions of hospital visits and billions of work days lost due to illness each year, resulting in high costs to our economies, as well as to environmental damage.

Exposure to PM₂.₅and ozone from fossil fuel emissions is responsible for about 7.7 million asthma-related trips to the emergency room each year, while exposure to fine PM₂.₅ alone from burning fossil fuels is estimated to cause 1.8 billion days of sick leave annually.

It is pointed out that air pollution is a major health threat to children, particularly in low-income countries. Globally, air pollution from fossil fuel-related PM₂.₅ is attributed to the death of about 40,000 children before their fifth birthday and to approximately 2 million preterm births each year.

The analysis incorporates recent research that quantifies the contribution of fossil fuel-related emissions to global air pollution levels, and it uses global datasets on levels of PM₂.₅, NO₂, and O₃ to perform health impact assessments and subsequent cost calculations for the year 2018.

Exposure to PM₂.₅ from fossil fuels was found to be responsible for the premature deaths of around 3 million people due to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer. Moreover, approximately 1 million people die prematurely due to ozone pollution and 500,000 people due to NO₂.

The total economic costs of the health damage are estimated to amount to USD 2,900 billion in 2018, equivalent to USD 8 billion per day. The report has an appendix providing both cost and mortality data country-by-country. When looking at individual countries, China, the US and India bear the highest cost from fossil fuel pollution, at USD 900 bn, 600 bn and 150 bn respectively.

Across the EU, around 400,000 annual premature deaths are attributed to fossil-fuel-related air pollution. Of these, 295,000 are linked to PM₂.₅ exposure, 69,000 to NO₂ and 34,000 to ozone exposure. The overall economic costs for the EU are estimated at more than USD 500 billion. Country-by-country data for EU member states are shown in the table.

The authors of the study argue that the solution is to rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels, which would simultaneously tackle both the air pollution crisis and the climate emergency, and the report lists some good examples of action taken in the transport and energy sectors.

“This is a problem that we know how to solve,” said Minwoo Son, clean air campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “By transitioning to renewable energy sources, phasing out diesel and petrol cars, and building public transport. We need to take into account the real cost of fossil fuels, not just for our rapidly heating planet, but also for our health.”

Christer Ågren

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