India has the highest number of premature deaths in the world due to emissions from burning fossil fuels, according to a new study published in the Environmental Research journal, conducted by researchers at Harvard University, University of Birmingham and the University of Leicester and University College London.
In 2018, more than 8.7 million people around the globe died from fossil fuel pollution, the report estimates. That’s twice as many as the 4.2 million people suggested by the previous research – the Global Burden of Disease. This means that air pollution from burning fossil fuels such as coal and diesel was responsible for about one in five deaths worldwide, as per the report.
Of this 8.7 million, India has almost 2.46 million deaths, that’s almost five deaths every minute. This means 30.7 per cent of total deaths in India above the age of 14 years can be attributed to exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in 2012. In comparison, China was estimated to have 3.9 million deaths or 40.2 per cent of total deaths above the age of 14. However, this has been revised downwards, below India’s figure. The figure was based on the original study of 2012 data and since then China has cut its PM 2.5 emissions from fossil fuels by 43.7 per cent because of which the researchers now estimate deaths to be 2.36 million, which is 24.2 per cent of deaths of people above 14 years old.
In sharp contrast for India, the report says there’s likely to have been a sustained increase in PM 2.5 across the country from 2012 to 2018, so the estimate of mortality in India in 2012 could be conservative – i.e. the actual impact may be greater. In fact a related report, which studied trends from 2008-18 shows that concentrations of all pollutants increased in Delhi, suggesting no air quality improvements there, despite a rollout of controls on industrial and transport sectors.
One of the authors, Dr Eloise Marais of University College London, says “the findings are consistent with mounting evidence that air pollution has a greater impact on health than previously thought… 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.”
Researchers tapped into a global 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry, then divided it into a grid with boxes as small as 50×60 km and looked at pollution levels in each box to model PM 2.5 emissions by burning fossil fuel. PM 2.5 are toxic particulate matter pollution of 2.5 microns in diameter, that’s about a thirtieth of a hair’s breadth. These are lethal as they defeat the human body’s defence mechanisms and settle deep into the lungs, spreading through the bloodstream into other vital organs causing ailments ranging from asthma to strokes, and even linked to cognitive impairment and harmful to foetuses.
The scientists say the takeaway from the report is that fossil fuel combustion can be more readily controlled than other sources, so this is a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders to further incentivise a shift to clean sources of energy.
What the study does is to further build on our understanding of not only how interlinked climate change-inducing green-house gases and air pollution are but also its devastating effects on mortality. An Indian Government’s study on climate change impact accepted that “phasing out” fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy is key in reducing India’s climate risk. A recent report by the Global Climate Risk Index (2021) ranked India as the seventh worst-affected by extreme weather events in 2019, both in terms of fatalities and economic loss suffered.
This week, two of the stars of America’s ruling party are pushing for President Biden to declare climate change a ‘national emergency’, giving him powers to take immediate steps to limit if not reverse the damage done. India has two sides to its version of such an environmental emergency – climate change and air pollution. At stake, as the report shows, are millions of lives.