Air pollution deaths: Emissions from G20 consumers killed two million people in 2010

More than half of premature deaths from air pollution worldwide in 2010 were the result of economic consumption in just 11 G20 countries

Nearly two million premature deaths from air pollution in 2010 were caused by the production of goods for consumers in G20 nations.

That’s according to a model by Keisuke Nansai at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Japan, whose group sought to identify the impact of each nation’s economic consumption on air pollution and the health problems they cause.

In 2010, the latest year for which all figures were available, consumption of goods in the 19 nations of the G20 (the European Union is the other member) resulted in almost two million air pollution-related premature deaths worldwide, with 78,600 of these in infants. The team has called for more collaboration between G20 countries to curb air pollution-related deaths caused as a direct result of the purchasing of goods.

To calculate these figures, the team mapped ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – microscopic particles that are small enough to enter the lungs and blood where they can cause disease – and estimated the health impacts in 199 countries.

These fine particles arise from the manufacture, transport and disposal of goods. They include black carbon, or soot, which is emitted when diesel, coal and other biomass fuels are burned, together with secondary particles that form in the atmosphere as a result of other emissions.

Globalised trade means that consumption in one country can lead to PM2.5 pollution in another, so the team used trade data from 19 of the G20 nations to create “footprints” that represented the health impact of one country’s consumption in another.

China had the largest number of premature deaths caused by PM2.5 particles, followed by India, the US, Russia and Indonesia. With the exception of the US, most of these deaths were within their own borders. However, the consumption of goods in the US and 10 other G20 nations resulted in more than 50 per cent of the PM2.5-related premature deaths in other countries.

G20 countries need to take more responsibility for their entire footprint, says Nansai, rather than focusing solely on the emissions created from transporting goods across borders.

Francesca Dominici at Harvard University says that the “great majority of the responsibility is on the government and big industry”.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions should also eventually decrease PM2.5 levels, says Dominici: “Air pollution and greenhouse gases share the same emission sources, and both affect the most vulnerable.”

Several higher-income countries, including the UK and the US, have pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century, although these promises have been criticised by leaders of lower-income countries for not being accompanied by clear plans. China and Russia have pledged to reach net zero by 2060. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said at the COP26 summit this week that the country will hit net-zero emissions by 2070.

“Honouring climate change agreements will save millions of lives now and also in the future,” says Dominici.

Nansai says that individual consumers can also make a difference. “We believe that consumers should pay attention to whether companies disclose their efforts to deal with air pollution throughout the life cycle of their products, and include this as a criterion for their consumption choices,” he says.

The researchers are currently analysing data from 2015 to update their findings, but are unable to say how the picture may have changed in more recent years. The covid-19 pandemic has decreased air pollution temporarily, but it is already returning to pre-pandemic levels, says Nansai.

“The air quality in developed countries will continue to improve as a result of climate change measures such as renewable energy. However, if nothing changes in developing countries, the number of premature deaths in these countries due to consumption will not change significantly,” says Nansai. “In fact, it will probably rise due to population growth and an increasing number of elderly people vulnerable to disease.”

Journal reference: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-26348-y

Air pollution deaths: Emissions from G20 consumers killed two million people in 2010 | New Scientist

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