Air pollution generated from burning fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—is responsible for 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year, according to a new report. And it costs the world about $8 billion a day, or roughly 3.3% of global gross domestic product (GDP), says the report, adding a transition to renewable energy cannot be delayed any longer.
Air pollution causes more chronic and acute illnesses and contributes to millions of hospital visits and billions of work absences due to illness every year while damaging the environment, says Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air’s (CREA) latest report—Toxic air: The price of fossil fuels.
“Coal, oil, and vehicle companies continue to push outdated technologies. Our health and our communities are paying the price,” the report says.
Mainland China, the U.S., and India bear the highest cost from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide. While the U.S. spends about $900 billion in costs related to air pollution annually, China spends $600 billion, and it costs India $150 billion per year. India is also one of the countries where the cost is more than 5% of the country’s GDP. The others on the list are Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, Belarus, Romania, and Bangladesh. It is about 6.6% of GDP in mainland China. “While the cost of our reliance on coal, oil, and gas continues to soar, life-saving alternatives are increasingly widespread and affordable,” says the report.
Air pollution is a major threat to children, especially in low-income countries. Greenpeace and CREA say about 40,000 children die before their fifth birthday because of exposure to PM2.5 pollution, and it is responsible for 2 million preterm births each year. Inhaling PM2.5 or atmospheric particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres has serious short- and long-term health effects. These include ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, premature birth (preterm birth), type II diabetes, stroke, and asthma.
“Governments must halt the construction of new coal-fired power plants and retire existing plants, invest in public transport systems, and transition to renewable energy as quickly as possible. Around the world, people are demanding clean air, and governments must take action,” says Bondan Andriyanu, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
The report suggests that phasing out of the existing coal, oil and gas infrastructure can bring major health benefits, as will reduce air pollution. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), India’s coal supply has increased rapidly since the early 2000s, and coal continues to be the largest domestic source of energy supply and electricity generation. The country is also the third-largest consumer of oil, the fourth‑largest oil refiner, and a net exporter of refined products.
“One of the most important ways that governments can catalyse sustainable transport is to set a phase-out date for diesel, gas, and petrol cars, and to introduce comprehensible and affordable public transport, with safe walking and cycling infrastructure,” says the report.
In a recent interview, Jeffrey Sachs, university professor and director, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University, had raised concerns over the toxic air in India. The economist said that dealing with the environmental crisis should be the top priority of the government.
“The government’s responsibility first and foremost is the well-being of people, that’s real economics, not the economics of some artificial indicator,” Sachs had said.