Already breathing cleaner air due to falling fossil fuel use

The energy transition is now saving over 200,000 lives a year thanks to falling use of coal and subsequent air pollution, a study confirms.
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As the climate crisis intensifies, reducing fossil fuel use has become a global priority. Apart from obvious and proven environmental benefits, this reduction also impacts directly and measurably on people’s health.

The lesser use of these resources, and increasing renewable energy, is resulting in significant improvements in human health. Why broach this subject now? Because it has just been shown that the falling presence of polluting particles in the air has meant the lives of some 200,000 people are being saved every year.

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Less burning of coal, fewer pollutants in the air, and better health for people

Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – emit more than just greenhouse gases when they are burned. They also pump into the atmosphere polluting particles responsible for millions of deaths annually across the planet. Fortunately, reducing the burning of these fuels – especially coal – is saving many hundreds of lives.

A recent study carried out by The Lancet Countdown indicates that, between 2005 and 2020, annual deaths attributable to particles linked to fossil fuels fell from 1,437,000 to 1,212,000, i.e., a reduction of 15.7%.

The study explains that this reduction is mainly due to a lesser amount of airborne pollutants related to the burning of coal. Specifically, it refers to PM2.5 particles. These are tiny particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micro-meters, the size of which makes them especially dangerous to human health; they are easily inhaled and get into the lungs, causing a variety of health problems, from respiratory to cardiac diseases.


“Annual deaths attributable to particles linked to fossil fuels fell from 1,437,000 to 1,212,000, i.e., a reduction of 15.7%”


According to the study, 80% of the fewer deaths related to exposure to PM2.5 particles is due to the reduction in coal use, i.e., burning less coal produces fewer PM2.5 particles, leading to fewer health problems and deaths associated with these particles.


Death from heat: how to avoid the worst effects of climate change on human health

Global warming represents a considerable risk for human health and its consequences go much further than problems derived from air pollution.

Heatwaves already cause 489,000 deaths a year, but this figure could be multiplied by 5 if we fail to reduce emissions of gases causing climate change.

In fact, even if we manage to fulfil the Paris Agreement and limit the temperature increase to 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, it is estimated that heat-related deaths will increase by 370% (with respect to 1995-2004), according to the report published in The Lancet Countdown.

The figures at our disposal already demonstrate the increase in mortality related to heat in the most vulnerable people, the elderly. Deaths related to high temperatures were 85% greater in the older population during the period between 2013 and 2022 than in 1991 to 2000.

Experts warn it is imperative we take immediate measures to ensure that health risks from climate change do not exceed the capacity of healthcare systems to protect us.

On a positive note, the study also highlights that 95% of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) established under the framework of the Paris Agreement already include references to health, which represents important progress in integrating public health into climate policies.


The energy transition protects the planet and people’s health

Of course, renewable energies are our best ally in protecting health. And falling fossil fuel use comes with two main benefits: first. the reduction of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, and; secondly, an increase in renewable capacity worldwide.

According to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, around 29% of all electricity now comes from renewable energy sources.

And the outlook is positive: global renewable energy investment reached a record USD 358 billion (EUR 328 billion) in the first half of 2023, 22% more than in the same period the year before.

We’ll find out more about what the energy sector has in store at COP28 in Dubai, which gets underway at the end of this month. Will there be more ambitious proposals on the table for the progressive elimination of fossil fuels? For now, the reality is that just 4% of plans include references to the elimination of subsidies for coal, oil and gas.

The transition toward an economy low in carbon is not only vital for our planet, but also for our health.