One in five deaths linked to fossil fuels

10th February 2021

Web pollution istock 1153026402 0

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Health ,
  • Science ,
  • sea ice loss ,
  • Fossil fuels ,
  • Global


Emma Devenport

Approximately one in five deaths are due to breathing air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, new scientific research suggests.

The study – based on data from 2018 – found that around 8.7 million people die every year as a result of fossil fuel emissions, which aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma, and can lead to lung cancer, heart disease and strokes.

This figure is far higher than previously thought, with regions containing the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution, such as Eastern North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia, found to have the highest rates of mortality.

The researchers from Harvard University and University College London (UCL) said that they hope the findings will encourage policymakers and others to switch to alternative energy sources.

“Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health,” said UCL associate professor Eloise Marais.

“We can’t in good conscience continue to rely on fossil fuels, when we know that there are such severe effects on health and viable, cleaner alternatives.”

Burning fossil fuels produces fine particles laden with toxins that are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, known as PM2.5, and the health risks of inhaling these are well documented.

Until now, the Global Burden of Disease Study, which is the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global mortality, put the total number of deaths each year from all outdoor airborne particulate matter at 4.2 million people.

However, this relies on satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of PM2.5 airborne particles, and cannot distinguish between particles from fossil fuel emissions and those from dust, wildfire smoke or other sources.

To overcome this challenge, the latest study used a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry with high spatial resolution, allowing the researchers to divide the globe into a grid with boxes as small as 50km x 60km and look at pollution levels in each box individually.

After developing a new risk assessment model that linked the concentration levels of particulates from fossil fuel emissions to health outcomes, they found that air pollution from fossil fuels accounts for 18% to 21.5% of global deaths.

“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” said Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

Image credit: iStock


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

How much is too much?

While there is no silver bullet for tackling climate change and social injustice, there is one controversial solution: the abolition of the super-rich. Chris Seekings explains more

4th April 2024

Read more

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Andrew Winston sees many reasons for hope as pessimism looms large in sustainability. Huw Morris reports

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

Regulatory gaps between the EU and UK are beginning to appear, warns Neil Howe in this edition’s environmental legislation round-up

4th April 2024

Read more

Five of the latest books on the environment and sustainability

3rd April 2024

Read more

Ben Goodwin reflects on policy, practice and advocacy over the past year

2nd April 2024

Read more

In 2020, IEMA and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) jointly wrote and published A User Guide to Climate-Related Financial Disclosures. This has now been updated to include three key developments in the field.

2nd April 2024

Read more

Hello and welcome to another edition of Transform. I hope that you’ve had a good and productive few months so far.

28th March 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close