Air Pollution’s Deadly Toll: Fossil Fuels Blamed for 5.1 Million Deaths Annually Worldwide

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In a stark revelation, a recent modelling study published in The BMJ exposes the severe health toll exacted by outdoor air pollution, with India ranking second only to China in the number of deaths attributed to this silent menace. The study estimates that air pollution from all sources claims a staggering 2.18 million lives annually in India, shedding light on the urgent need for comprehensive action.

The research, conducted by a team including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany, delves into the grim reality of air pollution’s global reach. Astonishingly, the study finds that air pollution arising from the use of fossil fuels in industry, power generation, and transportation is responsible for a staggering 5.1 million extra deaths worldwide each year. This alarming figure represents 61% of the total estimated 8.3 million deaths globally due to ambient (outdoor) air pollution from all sources in 2019.

The findings underscore the pressing need for a transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources, as the researchers argue that this shift could potentially prevent a significant portion of these deaths. The estimates of fossil fuel-related deaths presented in the study surpass previous values, signaling that the impact of phasing out fossil fuels on mortality may be more substantial than previously understood.

The researchers employed a novel model to estimate cause-specific deaths linked to fossil fuel-related air pollution and to gauge potential health benefits achievable through policies advocating for a transition to clean, renewable energy. The scenarios considered ranged from a complete phase-out of all fossil fuel-related emission sources to incremental exposure reductions of 25% and 50%, with a final scenario removing all human-induced sources of air pollution, leaving only natural sources.

In 2019, the study reveals, 8.3 million deaths worldwide were attributable to fine particles (PM2.5) and ozone (O3) in ambient air, with a staggering 5.1 million linked to fossil fuels. The geographical distribution of attributable deaths highlights the severity of the crisis in South and East Asia, particularly in China (2.44 million deaths per year) and India (2.18 million deaths per year).

The health impacts are not confined to a single ailment but span across common conditions, including ischemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease, and diabetes. Notably, about 20% of the deaths remain undefined but are likely linked to high blood pressure and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Phasing out fossil fuels emerges as a potent solution, promising the largest absolute reductions in attributable deaths in South, South East, and East Asia. The potential benefits of this transition are estimated at about 3.85 million lives saved annually in these regions, equivalent to 80-85% of potentially preventable deaths from all anthropogenic sources of ambient air pollution.Even in high-income countries heavily dependent on fossil energy, a fossil fuel phase-out could prevent around 0.46 million deaths annually, representing about 90% of potentially preventable deaths from all anthropogenic sources of ambient air pollution.

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