Air Pollution From Fossil Fuels Could Cut Lifespans by 2 to 5 Years - CityLab

The same policies that tackle climate change could add years back to our lives, a new analysis finds.


From gas-guzzling cars to power generation, fossil fuel combustion is a leading cause of climate change. But that’s not the only reason to rein in emissions. Fossil fuels are also a leading direct source of air pollution, a health risk that can take years off of human lives.


The smallest, most dangerous type of particulate air pollution, known as PM2.5, is on track to cost the average person 2.2 years. For people in the most polluted places, the cost would be far more, according to the annual Air Quality Life Index report published Wednesday.


When measured in life expectancy, ambient particulate pollution is more dangerous than other health risks, including cigarette smoking, unsafe water, malaria, and conflict and terrorism, the report found. For every 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 humans are exposed to, life expectancy falls by 0.98 years.


“There seems to be a consensus, as well, that it's really the particulates emitted from fossil fuel combustion that are particularly dangerous,” said Ken Lee, director of the AQLI, who wrote the report with University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone.


Researchers behind the index point out that the same policy changes that tackle climate change can also reverse that lifetime cost.


The analysis suggests that lowering the concentration of particulate matter to meet guidelines set by the World Health Organization can raise average global life expectancy by roughly two years. In the most polluted places — mainly South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal — it could add up to more than five extra years of life.


Fossil fuels worsen air quality both directly and indirectly. By driving climate change, they also drive the the intensity of extreme events like wildfires, which release tons more particulate pollution into the atmosphere.


Case in point: In 2015, more than 100,000 wildfires ripped through Indonesia, fueled by extremely dry conditions brought about by El Niño. The resulting smoke raised the islands’ concentration of PM2.5 particles to 40 micrograms per cubic meter, a 30% jump from 2013. It’s also four times the WHO limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter. If that increase remains permanent, life expectancy in the region would fall by almost a year, the AQLI report estimates.


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