Over one million deaths caused by burning fossil fuels in 2017

A study conducted by an international team of researchers has concluded that more than one million global deaths in 2017 were attributable to burning fossil fuels.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in addition to multiple researchers from around the globe, meticulously analysed the sources of health effects on air pollution for more than 200 countries. They determined that over one million people lost their lives in 2017 as a result of burning fossil fuels, with more than 50% of these deaths caused by coal.

Their research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Pollution is one of humanity’s deadliest problems of the modern era, not only causing substantial destruction to our environment but also culpable for killing a staggering amount of people each year due to PM2.5 – minuscule particles that enter the lungs and have debilitating effects.

Randall Martin, the leader of the study from the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, said: “PM2.5 is the world’s leading environmental risk factor for mortality. Our key objective is to understand its sources.”

The team utilised extensive data compiled by their respective organisations, employing multiple computational tools to combine and enhance it all. From this, the researchers were able to produce a novel global dataset of air pollution emissions – the most comprehensive ever of its kind – also advancing the GEOS-Chem model, a tool used to examine aspects of atmospheric chemistry.

From this extensive data of emissions and modelling, the team were able to distinguish specific sources of air pollution, such as energy production, burning fossil fuels, and dust storms. Additionally, satellites were employed to monitor PM2.5 exposure around the world, which was then combined with health outcomes from the Global Burden of Disease to establish the relationships between health and more than 20 distinct pollution sources.

The data effectively identified which specific sources of pollution were to blame in each area, with particulate matter emitted by home-heating and cookstoves occurring through various regions of Asia, and energy generation remaining one of the largest polluters globally.

McDuffie said: “Previous studies end up having to use different emissions data sets or models altogether. In those instances, it is difficult to compare results in one place versus another.

“We can more directly compare results between countries. We can even look at pollution sources in places that have implemented some mitigation measures, versus others that haven’t to get a more complete picture of what may or may not be working.”

Artificial sources are not only to blame, with natural sources found to play a crucial role; for example, windblown dust in West sub-Saharan Africa accounted for nearly 75% of particulate matter in the atmosphere in 2017 – compared to a mere 16% of the global rate.

“Ultimately, it will be important to consider sources at the subnational scale when developing mitigation strategies for reducing air pollution. The good news is that we may be providing some of the first information that these places have about their major sources of pollution. They may otherwise not have this information readily available to them. This provides them with a start,” McDuffie commented.

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