Air Pollution From Fossil Fuels Could Cut Lifespans by 2 to 5 Years

Source: By Linda Poon, Bloomberg • Posted: Thursday, September 2, 2021

The same policies that tackle climate change could add years back to our lives, a new analysis finds.

From gas-guzzling cars to power generation, fossil fuel combustion is a leading cause of climate change. But that’s not the only reason to rein in emissions. Fossil fuels are also a leading direct source of air pollution, a health risk that can take years off of human lives.

The smallest, most dangerous type of particulate air pollution, known as PM2.5, is on track to cost the average person 2.2 years. For people in the most polluted places, the cost would be far more, according to the annual Air Quality Life Index report published Wednesday.

When measured in life expectancy, ambient particulate pollution is more dangerous than other health risks, including cigarette smoking, unsafe water, malaria, and conflict and terrorism, the report found. For every 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 humans are exposed to, life expectancy falls by 0.98 years.

“There seems to be a consensus, as well, that it’s really the particulates emitted from fossil fuel combustion that are particularly dangerous,” said Ken Lee, director of the AQLI, who wrote the report with University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone.

Researchers behind the index point out that the same policy changes that tackle climate change can also reverse that lifetime cost.

The analysis suggests that lowering the concentration of particulate matter to meet guidelines set by the World Health Organization can raise average global life expectancy by roughly two years. In the most polluted places — mainly South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal — it could add up to more than five extra years of life.

Fossil fuels worsen air quality both directly and indirectly. By driving climate change, they also drive the the intensity of extreme events like wildfires, which release tons more particulate pollution into the atmosphere.

Case in point: In 2015, more than 100,000 wildfires ripped through Indonesia, fueled by extremely dry conditions brought about by El Niño. The resulting smoke raised the islands’ concentration of PM2.5 particles to 40 micrograms per cubic meter, a 30% jump from 2013. It’s also four times the WHO limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter. If that increase remains permanent, life expectancy in the region would fall by almost a year, the AQLI report estimates.

The lifespan estimates are based on a review of two previous studies that measured air pollution’s effect on the lifespan on people in China between 2013 and 2017.

In those years, China implemented a $270 billion air quality action plan, with $120 billion more in funding from Beijing, to reduce particulate matter concentration by 10%. Through policy changes such as banning new coal fire plants in some areas, reducing the number of cars on the roads in large cities and installing thousands of air monitors across the country, the country saw particulate pollution fall 29%, according to the report.

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While the report lauds China for its success, the researchers also recognize that developing nations, which could benefit the most from improved air quality, face a number of barriers to achieving that. Most people in Lagos, Nigeria, still rely on old cars with high sulfur output, for example, making vehicle emissions the primary source of air pollution. Unreliable electricity also means that many depend on diesel generators.

“So now you’ve got this collision of energy, poverty and poorly run energy utilities leading to more pollution,” said Lee.

Other places are sorely lacking in air quality data. Lee notes, however, that public demand for clean air was key to sparking action in China. And that starts with increasing public awareness about what’s at stake in an increasingly unbreathable world.

— With assistance by Amy Stillman