Fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — are not only primarily to blame for climate change, due to the greenhouse gases they release into the atmosphere when burned to generate energy. They also spew out harmful particulates that directly impact human health and cause millions of premature deaths around the world every year. The good news is that weaning ourselves off these fossil fuels improves global health, and saves lives, as a new macro-study from The Lancet Countdown highlights. Between 2005 and 2020, annual deaths attributable to PM2.5 particles linked to fossil fuels fell from 1,437,000 to 1,212,000, or a 15.7% reduction, according to the calculations contained in the study, which was just released to the public on Wednesday, November 15, and involved the participation of 114 scientists and health professionals from 52 institutions.
The main reason for this drop in premature deaths is the decline in coal-derived air pollution worldwide, the report explains. Eighty percent of the reduction in mortality from PM2.5 particles (those with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, which are more dangerous than larger particulates) is due to the decline in coal use. “We are seeing that we are lowering the consumption of fuels such as coal, which is among the most polluting. By having reduced emissions linked to coal, we also saved more than 200,000 lives each year, because we have reduced air pollution,” explains researcher Mariana Romanello, the executive director of the study. The decrease in the use of coal is also accompanied by an “exponential” increase around the world in the implementation of renewables, says Romanello.
This is the good news; the bad news is that humanity’s delay in implementing measures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions is already having serious consequences in the form of heat-related deaths, food insecurity, problems of access to water, economic losses, etc. And the worst is yet to come, as this year’s edition of The Lancet Countdown warns. The publication focuses on the relationship between health and climate change, and its first edition dates back to 2016. “This year’s report finds few signs of […] progress,” the study’s authors admit. Warming is already hovering around 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and “climate change is placing human health and survival at risk in every region of the world.”
The climate crisis has led to an increase in heat-related mortality among the most vulnerable general population: people over the age of 65. Deaths related to high temperatures were 85% higher in the period spanning 2013 to 2022 than in the period from 1991 to 2000. In the absence of climate change, i.e. only taking into account demographic factors related to aging and population increase, the increase should have been only 38%.
The crisis also has economic impacts. The report notes that losses caused by extreme weather events alone increased by 23% when comparing the periods 2010-2014 to 2018-2022. In 2022 alone, these damages related to events such as floods amounted to $264 billion. Added to this are losses related to heat exposure, which the study estimates at $863 billion.
As warming progresses, all of these impacts will grow exponentially worse. For example, if 2 degrees of warming is reached, experts expect the world to experience a 4.7-fold increase in heat-related deaths by mid-century in the population over the age of 65. And staying within two degrees of warming — the goal set by the Paris Agreement — would be considered a success in the international fight against climate change. “This is the first time we have projections that show us that even if we keep the temperature increase at two degrees, all those impacts we see today will be greatly exacerbated,” Romanello says. “Our health systems, which are already overstretched, probably won’t be able to cope with that world.”
Under the same two-degree warming scenario, the study projects that heat-attributed job losses will increase by 50% by mid-century. In addition, heat waves alone could cause 524.9 million more people to experience moderate to severe food insecurity between 2041 and 2060, “aggravating the global risk of malnutrition.” The same is true for some infectious diseases, which will become even more widespread.
Martín Lotto Batista, of the National Supercomputing Center in Spain, is among the researchers who collaborated on the study. His research center has focused specifically on analyzing conditions for malaria transmission worldwide since 1950. They have also produced projections up to the year 2100. “Our results reveal a clear trend of increasing conditions conducive to malaria transmission, especially in high-altitude areas, such as the highlands of Ethiopia in Africa or the Andes in South America,” he says. “Projecting into the future, we see a poleward shift of these conditions as temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change.”
The study not only analyzes the consequences of climate change, but also points the finger at the culprits. The authors denounce the “negligence of governments, companies and banks that continue to invest money in the oil and gas industry.” And the report warns that, “Without a rapid response to course correct, the persistent use and expansion of fossil fuels will ensure an increasingly inequitable future that threatens the lives of billions of people alive today.”
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