A new study published by Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London revealed that fossil fuel pollution was responsible for almost one in five deaths in 2018. The results call on governments and businesses to do more to switch to clean energy. It also draws renewed attention to the alarming rates of air pollution that affects the life of millions, also in Central and Eastern Europe.
According to the estimates of the study more than 8 million people around the world die each year as a result of breathing polluted air that contains particles from fossil fuels. That is almost twice as high as previously thought.
The burning of fossil fuels – especially coal, petrol, and diesel – is a major source of airborne fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and a key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease.
The highest death tolls are estimated over regions with substantial fossil fuel-related air pollution, notably China (3.9 million), India (2.5 million) and parts of Eastern US, Europe and Southeast Asia.
“Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health,” said Eloise Marais, Associate Professor of the University College London, warning that 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.
Emission rates are dynamic, increasing with industrial development or decreasing with successful air quality policies. China’s air quality for instance changed dramatically between 2021 and 2018. The researchers estimated that China’s decision to cut its fossil fuels emissions nearly in half saved 2.4 million lives worldwide, including 1.5 million lives in China, in 2018.
“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 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,” underlined Professor Schwartz.
Air pollution is considered one of the top environmental health risks in Europe, with 379,000 premature deaths in the EU attributed to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018. Therefore the EU established strict standards in the framework of the so-called Air Quality Directive setting limits for particulate matter and other pollutants. However, many Central and Eastern European countries failed to meet these standards or to take appropriate measures to address air pollution.
According to the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) Air Quality in Europe 2020 report, Central and Eastern European countries are lagging behind in terms of air quality. Poland has long had some of Europe’s lowest air quality, in part due to the burning of low-quality fuels to heat homes, as well as the country’s reliance on coal. The EEA also found that air pollutants caused nearly 50,000 premature deaths in Poland in 2018, most of those – 46,300 – were caused by PM2.5.
Just at the beginning of February, the European Court of Justice ruled that Hungary systematically breached legal limits on air pollution from particulate matter, in some regions for as long as 12 years.
The Western Balkans are also suffocating from air pollution. Citizens of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia and North Macedonia are equally exposed to airborne pollutants stemming from fossil fuel-powered heating plants and obsolete heating technology in households. In January, the European Fund for the Balkans has launched the Balkans United for Clean Air regional campaign, which calls upon the competent state institutions and citizens in the region to prevent up to 13,500 premature deaths every year.
Despite progress driven by EU policies to reduce emissions air pollution is still a major concern in several points of Europe, which requires urgent action energy use, transport, buildings and many other areas to improve air quality and advance EU progress towards meeting climate change policy objectives.