Cutting fossil fuels may save 5.1M lives per year, study finds

Many deaths are attributable to ambient air pollution, likely including Parkinson's

Margarida Maia, PhD avatar

by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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Phasing out fossil fuels could save an estimated 5.1 million lives each year worldwide by preventing deaths attributed to ambient air pollution, including those likely due to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, a study has found.

Transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources is not only an effective intervention to improve health, but also aligns with the United Nations’ goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The study, “Air pollution deaths attributable to fossil fuels: observational and modelling study,” was published in BMJ as a collaborative effort between researchers in Cyprus, Germany, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.

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The causes of Parkinson’s are not fully known, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a role. There is evidence that air pollution may increase the risk for developing Parkinson’s and dying from the disease.

In a broader sense, “air pollution might work as a trigger, accelerating disease progression, and worsening people’s health and prognosis [outlook],” according to a news release from the journal’s publisher.

Because most air pollutants come from burning fossil fuels, the international team drew on data from National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellites and the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study to estimate the effect of fossil fuel phase-out on global deaths. The 2019 GBD study estimates that “all forms of air pollution account for about 11.3% of total deaths worldwide for women and 12.2% for men,” the researchers wrote.

Using a newly developed risk model, they estimated that in 2019 about 8.3 million deaths per year worldwide were attributable to fine particulate (particles about 30 times thinner than a strand of hair) and ozone, a gas that can result from the chemical reactions involving pollutants emitted during the combustion of fossil fuels. Among these deaths, 61% (around 5.1 million deaths) were linked to fossil fuels.

More than half (52%) of these deaths were related to heart diseases, particularly ischemic heart disease (30%). Stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which causes shortness of breath and persistent cough, each accounted for 16% of all deaths.

‘An association with air pollution is growing’

About 20% had no clear cause, but likely were linked partly to high blood pressure and “neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, for which evidence for an association with air pollution is growing,” the team wrote.

“[E]stimates of fossil fuel-related deaths are larger than most previously reported values suggesting that the phasing out of fossil fuels might have a greater impact on mortality than previously though,” the researchers wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Different parts of the world had varying proportions of deaths attributable to fossil fuels, ranging from 25% to 85%. Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East had the lowest proportions because more deaths were related to natural emissions, such as desert dust.

Additional positive health outcomes

However, fewer deaths are only part of the benefits from a fossil fuel phase-out. “Major reductions in air pollution emissions, notably through a phase-out of fossil fuels, could have large, positive health outcomes,” the researchers wrote.

“Improved air quality would reduce the burden of several major diseases leading to healthier and longer lives, fewer patients requiring admission to hospital and other treatments, and decreasing the burden on health systems worldwide,” they added.

Along with efforts to replace fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources, future studies should focus on the potential health benefits of such transition, the researchers noted.