By phasing out coal-fired plants we can save millions of lives

22 Juni 2021

Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are driving climate change, which imperils the health of life on the planet and so harms us all. Yet the burning of fossil fuels also harms us directly by contributing to a variety of diseases, many of them life-threatening.

“Long-term exposure to ambient (outdoor) fine particulate matter less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5) is the largest environmental risk factor for human health, with an estimated 4.1 million attributable deaths worldwide (7.3% of the total number of global deaths) in 2019,” warn scientists in a new study, which provides further evidence (if any more was needed) of the health hazards caused by harmful industrial emissions.

In 2017 alone more than 1 million people worldwide died as a result of airborne particles that adversely impacted their health, causing or worsening strokes, pulmonary diseases and other deadly conditions. Needless to say, that awful toll is a clear global health emergency.

PM2.5 particles are emitted into the air we breath from a variety of sources from cooking to waste burning, the scientists explain.

“Sources include direct emissions such as forest fires and agricultural waste burning, windblown mineral dust from arid regions, and inefficient fuel combustion, as well as secondary emissions from atmospheric chemical reactions between primary gas-phase pollutant precursors,” they write.

“These precursors are emitted from both combustion and non-combustion processes that include residential energy use, on- and off-road vehicles, energy generation, solvent use, industrial processes, and agricultural fertilizer application,” they add.

A large part of such airborne pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which causes large numbers of deaths each year, especially in China and India, where most deaths in the world occur each year owing to pollutants released from coal-fired plants and other industrial sources of PM2.5.

The authors of the study examined data from 204 countries and 200 areas within nations, and their findings are clear: the more fossil fuels are burned in a certain region or area, the more deaths occur as a result of it.

“Our results show that regions with large anthropogenic contributions generally had the highest attributable deaths, suggesting substantial health benefits from replacing traditional energy sources,” the researchers explain.

Part of the solution lies in phasing out coal-fired plants and other large sources of PM2.5 emissions, particularly in China and India where air pollution levels and coal use both remain very high.

“[The] complete elimination of coal and O&NG [oil and natural gas] combustion in these two countries could reduce the global PM2.5 disease burden by nearly 20%,” the scientists stress.

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