Smoking kills 8 million people a year. Strokes, 5 million. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 2.3 million have died globally.
But a new report has highlighted that there's a cause of death that exceeds all of these — an “invisible killer” that took the lives of 8.7 million people in 2018. Whether you want to or not, it’s something you’ll likely be breathing in at some point today.
We’re talking about the air pollution that comes from fossil fuels.
The study found that fossil fuels were responsible for 1 in 5 of all deaths worldwide in 2018, far exceeding all previous estimates on the potential mortality rate of air pollution.
It was a collaborative effort, published in the scientific journal Environmental Research, between scientists from three UK universities — the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London (UCL) — and Harvard University in the US.
“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,” said Eloise Marais, co-author of the study from University College London. “It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”
"Air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil was responsible for 8.7m deaths globally in 2018, a staggering one in five of all people who died that year"https://t.co/EkeLkCixx9— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) February 9, 2021
Previous estimates from Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air last year suggested that air pollution killed 4.5 million people in 2018, all while costing the global economy an estimated $2.9 trillion annually. However, a Lancet study concluded the number was 4.2 million.
The new report's estimate of 8.7 million is therefore a substantial escalation. It examines a specific form of particulate matter called PM2.5 — basically, a mixture of microscopic droplets in the air like smoke and dirt, smaller than a single human hair, that’s released by things like cars.
And according to the Guardian, this study was all about detail: instead of the standard measuring system of using a combination of satellites and on-the-ground observations, it used 3D modelling overseen by NASA to allow for closer inspection of the air breathed by adults over the age of 15.
Although the data showed that air pollution was actually improving across the world, the death toll was still much higher than anything that had come before. It’s a public health issue that can be addressed with a simple refocus: immediate action on the climate crisis.
Renewable energy sources are growing faster than ever before. Indeed, in 2020, electricity generation in Europe saw renewables finally overtake fossil fuels for the first time ever. But at a time when a number of countries have enshrined a commitment to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law, there is still criticism across the board that these long-term goals haven’t yet translated into action in the here and now.
“Fossil fuels have a really large impact upon health, the climate, and the environment and we need a more immediate response,” Marais added. “Some governments have carbon-neutral goals but maybe we need to move them forward given the huge damage to public health. We need much more urgency.”