Fossil fuels are deadly, both in terms of the air pollution they generate and the climate impacts they augur. Fine particulate matter from the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for millions of deaths each year and climate change imperils hundreds of millions more.
Reports have been circulating about the deadly link between fossil fuels and air pollution for years. A 2012 study concluded that air pollution from fossil fuels was contributing to the deaths of more than 5 million people every year. The most recent data suggests the mortality rate from fossil fuel pollution is more than twice previous estimates. A recent study published in the journal Environmental Research estimates that in 2012 more than 10 million deaths can be attributed to fossil fuel pollution. To underscore the clear linear relationship between fossil fuel pollution and mortality, the reduction in fossil fuel use in 2018 resulted in a commensurate reduction in mortality (8.7 million deaths or 1.4 million less than in 2012).
“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 study said.
The fossil fuel industry is expected to be far more lethal as the key driver of global warming. Climate change makes us sick both physically and mentally. It is linked to deadly extreme weather as well as disease and death from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. Two decades ago the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 150,000 people were dying each year because of climate change. In 2014 the WHO conservatively estimated that by 2030 more than a quarter of a million people will die each year because of climate. The report indicated that climate change-related food shortages alone could cause more than half a million deaths by 2050. It also said that by 2030 climate change could make more than 100 million people more vulnerable to health concerns associated with poverty. In addition to the very significant economic damage a Climate Impact Lab working paper suggests that if left unchecked by 2100, climate change will kill more people than the sum of all the infectious diseases around the world.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that we must radically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. This requires the coordinated involvement of national and subnational governments. As stated in a 2018 IPCC report governments are an essential part of the energy transition process.
Despite progress on small particulate air pollution from fossil fuels in China and the U.S.,the Trump administration worked tenaciously to advance the interests of the fossil fuel industry while simultaneously undermining renewable energy They also eliminated environmental protections including pollution regulations that save lives. It is important to point out that although the situation was exacerbated by the former administration, Republicans have been colluding with the fossil fuel industry to prevent climate action for decades.
However, polls suggest that the GOP is at odds with prevailing attitudes. A Wall Street Journal 24/7 poll indicates that fossil fuels are the most hated industry in the U.S. Banks are slowly moving away from fossil fuels and influential investors have declared the end of fossil fuels as market forces make it all but inevitable that we will transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. When considered in consort with the global fossil fuel divestment movement and the actions of governments around the world, there is reason to believe that we may do what needs to be done. In the U.S. the Biden administration has announced a raft of policy objectives designed to reduce pollution associated with fossil fuels. Similar decarbonization pledges in Europe, the UK, and China also suggest that we know what needs to be done.
We have lived through a decade from hell on the road to ruin. The wanton destruction of the natural world puts us on a perilous path. We have been warned, we are teetering on the cusp of the collapse of civilization. There is much we can learn from recent events, including the COVID-19 pandemic. These events may very well prove to be catalysts for change.
To reduce mortality both now and in the future we must replace fossil fuels with clean sources of energy. This was the central issue at the UN Climate Ambition Summit at the end of 2020. The urgency of the need to expedite this energy transition cannot be overstated. We are running out of time to act and future generations are depending on our ability to expedite the end of fossil fuels.