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Air pollution from fossil fuels causes over 30% deaths in India every year: Harvard study

Within India, UP had the highest number of deaths attributed to air pollution from fossil fuels, with over 4.7 lakh deaths per year in the state due to such pollution.

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New Delhi: More than 30 per cent of the annual deaths in India can be attributed to air pollution from fossil fuels, a new study by Harvard University has found.

The research, conducted in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, found the highest rates of deaths from fossil fuels like coal and diesel to be in China and India.

The researchers found that within India, Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of deaths attributed to air pollution from fossil fuels. According to the data, over 4.7 lakh deaths per year in UP were due to such pollution.

The estimates suggest that over 2.8 lakh deaths in Bihar were attributed to air pollution from fossil fuels.

The study, however, found that efforts to improve air quality in China brought down such deaths from 21.5 per cent of the total deaths in 2012 to 18 per cent in 2018.

Also read: Air pollution could be linked to higher prevalence of anaemia among children under 5 in India

A global problem

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research, found that regions with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution — including Eastern North America, Europe, and South-East Asia — have the highest rates of mortality.

It said burning fossil fuels was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.

The research suggests that globally over 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution.

The estimate of deaths attributed to air pollution is nearly double of the number of such deaths estimated by the Global Burden of Disease Study — which was the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global deaths.

The 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study had estimated that outdoor airborne particulate matter, which includes dust and smoke from wildfires and agricultural burns, had led to 4.2 million deaths.

The researchers behind the Harvard study, however, said the previous research relied on satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of airborne particulate matter or PM2.5.

Such observations do not distinguish between particles from fossil fuel emissions and those from dust, wildfire smoke or other sources, they said.

“With satellite data, you’re seeing only pieces of the puzzle,” Loretta J. Mickley, Senior Research Fellow at Harvard said in a statement. “It is challenging for satellites to distinguish between types of particles, and there can be gaps in the data.”

Also read: Air pollution likely led to 29% pregnancy loss in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh — Lancet study

The study model

To overcome this challenge, the team used a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry, which allowed the researchers to look at local pollution levels.

“Rather than rely on averages spread across large regions, we wanted to map where the pollution is and where people live, so we could know more exactly what people are breathing,” Karn Vohra, a graduate student at University of Birmingham and first author of the study, said in a statement.

The new study found a higher mortality rate for long-term exposure to fossil fuel emissions, even at lower concentrations.

“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of carbon dioxide and climate change, which overlooks the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” Joel Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the Harvard, said in a statement.

“We hope that by quantifying 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,” Schwartz said.

Also read: Delhi’s clean power goal has a problem — idled fossil fuel plants


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  1. Harvard should ALSO lobby for the world’s leading renewable and sustainable energy technology to be shared for free for the countries it is so concerned about.

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