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Over 1 million air pollution-related deaths avoidable in 2017, coal contributed to over half: Study

The study claims that globally, 1.05 million deaths were avoidable in 2017 by eliminating fossil-fuel combustion, with coal contributing to over half of them.

By: Express News Service | Pune |
Updated: June 26, 2021 6:50:06 pm
air pollution, air pollution deathsThe study claims that globally 1.05 million deaths were avoidable in 2017 by eliminating fossil-fuel combustion, with coal contributing to over half / file

A recently-published paper in the journal Nature Communications by an interdisciplinary group of researchers from across the globe has comprehensively examined the sources and health effects of air pollution — not just on a global scale, but also individually for more than 200 countries and sub-national regions.

The study claims that globally, 1.05 million deaths were avoidable in 2017 by eliminating fossil-fuel combustion, with coal contributing to over half of them.

Other dominant global sources included residential (0.74 million deaths; 19.2 per cent of PM 2.5 burden), industrial (0.45 million deaths; 11.7 per cent of PM 2.5 burden), and energy (0.39 million deaths; 10.2 per cent of PM 2.5 burden) sectors.

With 58 per cent of the total global ambient PM 2.5 mortality burden, China and India together accounted for the largest numbers of attributable deaths.

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Dr Michael Brauer, lead researcher on the study and professor at University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, said, “We have known for a while that air pollution is a big contributor to deaths. This study provides both a global perspective of the relative importance of different sources and a starting point for the many countries of the world which are yet to address air pollution as a health concern.”

According to the study, in 2017, the global PM 2.5 average concentration was 41.7 µg/m3, with 91 per cent of the world’s population experiencing annual average concentrations higher than the World Health Organisation’s annual average guideline of 10 µg/m3. It further adds that more than 65 per cent of the sub-national regions evaluated experienced higher PM 2.5 concentrations than their national averages.

In some extreme cases, in regions around Kanpur and Singrauli, the annual average PM 2.5 concentrations exceeded 150 µg/m3, almost four times the safety limit prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board and 15 times higher than the WHO guideline.


For the top nine countries that had the highest numbers of attributable deaths, coal was the largest contributing fuel in China, accounting for 22.7 per cent or 3,15,000 deaths. Oil and natural gas was the largest fuel contributor in Egypt, Russia and the United States, accounting for up to 27 per cent or between 9,000 and 13,000 deaths in each country, and solid biofuel combustion was the largest contributing fuel source in India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria, accounting for up to 36 per cent or 250,000 deaths.

Among key polluting sources in India, the residential sector made up 25.7 per cent of the source contribution, industry 14.8 per cent , energy 12.5 per cent, agriculture 9.4 per cent, waste 4.2 per cent and other combustion 3.1 per cent.

The study also establishes that sources vary at the sub-national scale, highlighting the importance of developing regional air quality mitigation strategies. For example, while residential emissions are the largest source of average PM2.5 exposure and attributable mortality in China and India, areas surrounding Beijing and Singrauli (in Madhya Pradesh) have relatively larger contributions from energy and industry sectors.


As the largest number of PM2.5 attributable deaths occurred in China and India, complete elimination of coal and oil and natural gas combustion in these two countries could reduce the global PM2.5 disease burden by nearly 20 per cent, stated the study.

Previous research has shown that emissions from coal combustion have decreased by up to 60 per cent between 2013 and 2017 in China, while these same emission sources in India have increased by up to 7 per cent between 2015 and 2017.

Dr Erin McDuffie, the first author of the study and a visiting research associate at Washington University in St. Louis, explained that countries with the largest number of air pollution-related deaths typically had larger contributions from human-derived sources, “How many deaths are attributable to exposure to air pollution from specific sources? The comparisons in this study are important when it comes to considering mitigation. Ultimately, it will be important to consider sources at the subnational scale when developing mitigation strategies for reducing air pollution.”

The large dataset in this study is the first to estimate global contributions from more than 20 individual pollution sources — from sectors such as agriculture, transportation, energy generation, waste, and residential energy use. It is also the first to study the global impacts of specific fuels like solid biomass, coal, oil and natural gas.

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First published on: 26-06-2021 at 02:28:15 pm

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