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Fossil Fuel Capitalism Is Cutting Our Lives Short

A new study shows that 17 billion life years could be saved if air pollution was reduced to WHO standards, but there's only one way to do it – ending the system that pollutes the world in the name of profit.

Smog over Los Angeles. Credit: Robert Landau / Getty Images

Air pollution is killing people around the world on average 2.2 years early, according to a new report. The data comes from researchers at the University of Chicago who run the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), which quantifies poor air quality according to lost life years.

They calculate that up to 17 billion life years could be saved if air pollution was brought down to the benchmark for clean air: the WHO guideline of 10 µg/m32. Staggeringly, the average exposure for the world’s population to particulate pollution is currently three times that amount, at concentrations of 32 µg/m3.

The main cause of this pollution? Fossil fuels – particularly coal. ‘Coal is the source of the problem in most parts of the world,’ Professor Michael Greenstone, co-author of the report, told the Guardian. ‘If these [health] costs were embedded in prices, coal would be uncompetitive in almost all parts of the world.’

The report candidly links fossil fuels to the dangers of both climate breakdown and air pollution; it identifies a ‘wildfire feedback loop’ whereby fossil fuel combustion creates both particulate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the latter of which increases wildfires. Fires in turn fuel both pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, escalating the cycle.

However, the harms of air pollution are not evenly measured out per global citizen. Instead, industrialising parts of the developing world bear the brunt of the damages. For example, AQLI estimates that Londoners are losing a few months of life on average. Meanwhile, on the Indo-Gangetic plains of Northern India (population 480 million, including Delhi and Kolkata), inhabitants are predicted to die over nine years early if 2019 pollution levels persist. These devastating statistics are the reality of life and death under global fossil capitalism.

In some countries, there have been improvements in environmental conditions. The report celebrates China’s accomplishments since they declared ‘war on pollution’ in 2014: particulate pollution dropped by 29 percent between 2013 and 2019. These gains account for three quarters of the reductions in air pollution across the world. Although poor air quality still robs 2.6 years of life off the average Chinese citizen, strong policies such as restrictions on coal-fired power plants, iron and steel making, and numbers of cars in cities has made strides forward.

The findings bring into sharp focus the need for a just transition away from fossil fuels everywhere, not just in the Global North. Developed countries have a historic duty to assist and finance developing countries in their green transitions, to mitigate global warming and draw down polluted air simultaneously; this kind of reparative climate justice is critical not least due to the legacies of colonialism and slavery that built the wealth of much of the Global North and reverberate through global structural inequality today.

For example, War on Want and others have estimated that to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the UK’s ‘fair share’ contribution to overseas aid is £1 trillion. However, the real figures on climate finance are much slimmer. In 2010 at COP16, developed countries pledged a cumulative $100 billion per year in climate finance to address the needs of developing countries for climate adaptation and mitigation. Even this amount is yet to be fulfilled, and tracking the true figures is a murky process. The OECD reported levels of $78.9 billion in 2018, but this number has been challenged by researchers.

Meanwhile, the needs of developing countries continue to expand. India alone—the most polluted country on the planet, according to the AQLI—has calculated climate action will cost $2.5 trillion up to 2030. The most significant burdens are in energy transition and mitigation action, plus adaptation for agriculture, forestry, water resources, and ecosystems.

$100 billion, equivalent to just four percent of India’s total estimated costs, is fundamentally inadequate to overhaul the global fossil economy. The richest countries on the planet are absconding from their responsibilities to secure a liveable, breathable planet both at home and abroad.

The impacts of bad air quality are not exclusive to the Global South. Despite big improvements, the AQLI shows that almost three-quarters of Europeans still live in areas which exceed WHO guidelines on particulate pollution. And early mortality only tells one story – air pollution also impacts morbidity, the rate of illness in a living population. This was tragically laid bare by the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013, who lived in Lewisham. An inquest found that air pollution contributed both to her developing a rare form of asthma and then to exacerbating the condition.

Although Sadiq Khan is attempting to tackle London’s toxic air by expanding the ultra-low emissions zone, targeting the major root cause of particulate pollution means an outright rejection of fossil fuels. Transforming toxic air around the globe requires urgent action and—in the first instance—a restructuring of climate finance to secure support for the Global South. These countries are most dependent on fossil fuels and most fatally impacted by both climate breakdown and dirty air. An inhabitable earth is within grasp, with clean air so all of us can live longer and healthier lives.