/ 10 February 2021

One in five deaths are due to fossil fuel air pollution

Bangladesh Pollution Environment Kilns
A baby who is suffering from respiratory disease receives treatment at Dhaka Shishu (Children) Hospital in Dhaka. (Photo by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

Just under 20% or one in five deaths globally are as a result of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. That is 8.7-million people in 2018, with the majority in China and India.

The number of deaths is much higher than previously thought, the new study, led by Harvard University researchers and released this week, shows. 

The research, Global Mortality From Outdoor Fine Particle Pollution Generated by Fossil Fuel Combustion: Results From GEOS-Chem, was published in the journal Environmental Research.

In contrast, the latest Global Burden of Disease Study — the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global mortality — the number of deaths from outdoor air pollution was put at 4.2-million. 

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, natural gas and petrol are a major source of fine particulate matter known as PM2.5. These particles get deep into people’s lungs and then start breaking them down from the inside, driving illnesses such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes.


The Harvard study says the previous research on deaths caused by fossil fuel air pollution was more reliant on satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of airborne particulate matter.

Loretta Mickley, one of the authors of the Harvard study, says it’s problematic to rely on satellite imagery and surface observations, because these can’t tell the difference between particles from fossil fuel emissions and from dust, smoke and other particles.

“With satellite data, you’re seeing only pieces of the puzzle. It is challenging for satellites to distinguish between types of particles, and there can be gaps in the data.”

In this research, the team used a 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry to see how pollution moved. They then tested their findings against data and observations from aircraft, land and in space. 

Joel Swarts, another of the authors of the Harvard study, noted that the conversation about fossil fuel pollution is often pulled into that about climate change. As a result, he said: “We overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases.”

He said one purpose of releasing this new research was to put a spotlight on the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion.

“We can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

The South African National Environment Management Act, pledges to “reform the law regulating air quality in order to protect the environment by providing measures for the prevention of pollution and ecological degradation.”