New Research: Phasing Out Fossil Fuels Could Save Millions of Lives

Air Pollution Earth Planet

A study reveals that phasing out fossil fuels could prevent 5.13 million deaths per year globally linked to air pollution, primarily from cardiometabolic diseases. Utilizing a new risk model, it emphasizes the health and environmental benefits of transitioning to renewable energy sources.

A recent study suggests that the health impact of air pollution caused by fossil fuels is significantly greater than previously thought. Eliminating fossil fuel usage could lead to major improvements in public health.

Air pollution remains a significant risk to public health, with varying estimates of its impact on mortality due to differences in how studies measure exposure-response relationships and the types of deaths considered. Additionally, few studies globally have linked mortality to specific sources of air pollution.

In recent research, a team headed by Jos Lelieveld and Andrea Pozzer from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, along with Andy Haines from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, have explored the effects of phasing out fossil fuels on both disease-specific and overall mortality, focusing particularly on the associated changes in air pollution levels.

The researchers find that most (52%) of the mortality burden is related to cardiometabolic conditions, particularly ischaemic heart disease that can cause heart attacks (30%). Stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease both account for about 16%. About 20% is undefined, with arterial hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and neurodegenerative diseases possibly implicated. 

“We estimate that 5.13 million excess deaths per year globally are attributable to ambient air pollution from fossil fuel use and therefore could potentially be avoided by phasing out fossil fuels,” states atmospheric chemist Jos Lelieveld, director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. “This corresponds to 82% of the maximum number of air pollution deaths that could be averted by controlling all anthropogenic emissions”.

The new results were accomplished by applying a new relative risk model that optimizes the exposure-response relationship throughout the global range of ambient exposure levels. In addition, estimates of cause-specific and all-cause mortality due to long-term exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3) are attributed to pollution sources in this study.

Study design: Atmospheric modeling method distinguishes source categories

The scientists developed a data-constrained global atmospheric modeling method to compute gaseous and particulate air pollutants and attributed them to source categories. The atmospheric model was used to calculate the fractional changes in PM2.5 related to emission sectors based on computer simulations in which source categories have been sequentially switched off.

“Our model calculated fractional changes were then applied to the high-resolution observational particulate pollution data to determine exposure reductions according to four emission scenarios,” explains Andrea Pozzer. The first scenario assumes that all fossil fuel-related emission sources are phased out. The second and third, “quarter way” and “halfway” scenarios assume that 25 percent and 50 percent of the exposure reduction towards the fossil phaseout are realized, respectively. Finally, the fourth removes all anthropogenic sources for reference, thus only accounting for natural sources such as aeolian dust, marine and terrestrial biosphere emissions, and natural wildfires. Since the responses are not strongly non-linear, the team of scientists concludes that fossil fuel-related emission reductions at all levels of air pollution can decrease the number of attributable deaths substantially.

“Ambient air pollution would no longer be a leading environmental health risk factor if the use of fossil fuels were superseded by equitable access to clean sources of renewable energy,” emphasizes epidemiologist Andy Haines from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “This study provides new evidence to motivate rapid fossil fuel phaseout”. Phasing out fossil fuels is a remarkably effective health-improving and life-saving intervention and a major cost-benefit of the United Nations’ goal of climate neutrality by 2050.

Reference: “Air pollution deaths attributable to fossil fuels: observational and modelling study” by Jos Lelieveld, Andy Haines, Richard Burnett, Cathryn Tonne, Klaus Klingmüller, Thomas Münzel and Andrea Pozzer, 29 November 2023, BMJ.
DOI: 10.1136/bmj-2023-077784

5 Comments on "New Research: Phasing Out Fossil Fuels Could Save Millions of Lives"

  1. If people were seriously concerned about air pollution (health) and climate change they would have been protesting outside all of the car manufacturers factories and hdqtrs. to stop making SUV’s. Consider SUV’s get at least 5 miles per gallon less than a sedan. About 60-70 percent of the vehicles on the road are SUV’s. Do the math. Expect a very huge number of gallons over the past decade.

    • Consider how much more air pollution would be created if ‘soccer moms’ could only carry the children and gear for a couple of kids and more cars would have to be used to get the kids to the playing field. The metric should be the amount of pollution per person, not per vehicle.

      Air pollution doesn’t just come combustion. Brake pads from vehicles of all types are a significant source of urban air pollution. Also, land use changes contribute to dust when trees are removed and bare ground is exposed.

      Something that rarely gets mentioned is that the severity of air pollution is directly related to the intractable problem of population density.

  2. What the biggest scam alert to all this global warming crap is just how selective the powers that be are in choosing what is harmful, when its harmful, and how its harmful.

  3. How many lives would be lost due to the “phasing out” of fossil fuels? Since “phasing out” typically means that governments will put bans in place with timelines, where manufacturers must stop making these things by a certain date, which causes the prices of second hand items to skyrocket, making them unaffordable to those that rely on the lower prices of the second hand market –the lower classes (the people who cannot afford to buy the new technology that is supposed to replace the old, now banned technology). So in other words, how many middle and lower class people will be negatively effected by this? How many lives will be lost? How many people will be thrust into poverty or homelessness due to this?
    Why are these things always overlooked or ignored?

  4. We need more information; Firstly; What are the pollution levels of any alternate fuels? Secondly; how universally available are they? Thirdly does a decrease in deaths increase overpopulation? Earlier societies had much higher death rates, which at least kept overpopulation under control Fourth; would we be better off if fossil fuels were used more efficiently by banning heavy users like SUVs as Gary suggests above. The world is a ~complex place~ where single issue solutions seldom work

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