State of the Planet

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It’s Not Just About Climate Change, It’s About Our Health – and the Energy Sector Is Key

Courtesy of The Lancet

More than ninety percent of children today are breathing dangerous air that can damage their hearts, lungs, and every other vital organ in their bodies – and it’s because of dirty fuels. While the smog crises in Beijing, New Delhi, and Tehran grab headlines, it’s a tragedy that plays out daily across the United States: thousands of children are rushed to the ER each year in New York City alone because of asthma attacks caused by breathing dirty, contaminated air. Solving this public health emergency requires speeding up the transition to cleaner sources of energy dramatically, faster than the timeline generally suggested for tackling climate change.

New research published in the British medical journal The Lancet shows how rising greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from burning fossil fuels are already harming human health around the globe. Their combined effects are undermining the foundations of good health, according to this collaborative effort that brings together 120 experts from 35 academic and United Nations institutions including the World Health Organisation, World Bank, University College London, Tsinghua University in China, and Columbia University here in New York.

Existing data clearly show that the energy sector (including not only power plants, but also transportation and industry) produces the vast majority of key air pollutants that damage our bodies. This air pollution leads not only to the health issues one might expect, such as increasing instances of childhood asthma, but also to heart disease, respiratory illness, cancers, and early death. Consider that particulate matter pollution alone results in several million premature deaths each year. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution represents the largest global environmental risk factor for premature mortality in the world.

The energy sector also produces the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change and exacerbating the global health problem. In 2018, we experienced 831 climate-related extreme events around the globe, resulting in $166 billion in economic loses according to The Lancet report.

Quickly transitioning our energy supplies to clean, low-carbon energy sources is a tremendous opportunity to improve our health.

We have already made some progress. Renewables accounted for 45 percent of recent global growth in power plant capacity and now supply one-third of the world’s electricity demand. Thanks to widespread adoption of electric vehicles, almost 2 percent of China’s transportation fuel use now comes from electricity.

Despite these positive trends, global carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector grew by 2.6 percent from 2016 to 2018 and coal use continues to rise. Globally, almost 3 billion people still live without access to clean fuels for cooking, leading to millions of early deaths each year. And here in the United States, air pollution is on the rise again after almost a decade, leading to nearly 10,000 additional early deaths from 2016 to 2018.

If we don’t act strongly and soon, we are facing a world in which we are more likely to get lung cancer even if we don’t smoke, and where more children will develop asthma, suffer infectious disease, and be faced with a lifetime of health challenges. Such outcomes are not inevitable, and we know the solutions. If we act now, and transition our energy systems, we can transform the health of a child born today for the better. Protecting our children’s health – and our own – requires that we make this transition as soon as possible.

Melissa C. Lott is a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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