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Dirty fuels a health crisis time bomb

Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is killing too many people. Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will suffer the most

Air pollution kills 6.5m people every year and is more deadly than HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Polluting energy production and inefficient or unregulated use of energy are the biggest culprits and the problem is only going to get worse.

Fuel combustion will increase steadily between now and 2040 – to meet an anticipated rise in global energy demand of a third. This will cause deaths from outdoor air pollution to rise from around 3m a year now to 4.5m by 2040.

Burning coal alone is responsible for around 60% of global combustion-related sulphur dioxide (SOx) emissions while diesel generates more than half of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emitted globally – a major cause of respiratory diseases.

Asia accounts for almost 90% of the forecast rise in premature deaths with air pollution in many of the region’s growing cities continuing to be the biggest hazard, affecting a larger share of an increasingly urban population.

But more than half of the 6.5m deaths from air pollution every year occur because of indoor air pollution. Around 2.7bn people, mainly living in poverty in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, burn wood, other solid fuels and kerosene for cooking and lighting.

This causes around 3.5m premature deaths every year, which will rise to 4.5m by 2040 unless investment is made in cleaner energy, according to the report.
The agency says just a 7% increase in global energy investment between now and 2040 could cut the death toll from outdoor air pollution by 1.7m, while deaths from household pollution could be 1.6m lower than the IEA forecasts now.

But this would need an extra $2.3 trillion in advanced air pollution control technologies and $2.5 trillion in a more rapid transformation of the energy sector. If this investment is forthcoming global emissions of SOx and NOx will be half the expected levels in 2040 – and developing countries in Southeast Asian and sub-Saharan Africa will feel the benefits most.

The share of the Indian population exposed to polluted air would fall to less than 20% by 2040, down from more than 60% this year, the IEA said. In China less than a quarter of its population would be exposed to filthy air, down from over half now. In Indonesia and South Africa it could fall to zero.

But global upstream capital spending has been slashed since crude prices began to tumble in 2014.

Last year global energy investment fell by 8%, from 2014 levels, down to $1.8tn, according to the IEA. Most of the drop was due to a slowdown in upstream spending.

The US accounted for around half of the total, global drop last year. Investment in the country’s energy sector fell by $75bn last year, the IEA said, down to $280bn. This was mainly because of lower crude prices and falling costs.

Upstream spending between 2015 and 2020 has fallen by $740bn since oil prices crashed in 2014, according to Wood Mackenzie – a consultancy. This is a drop of 22%.

Global coal consumption fell slightly last year by around 1.8%  down to 3.91bn tonnes of oil equivalent, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. But after five consecutive years of rises this will do little to curb total global consumption in the medium term of such a carbon-intensive fuel.

Low prices are also providing little incentive to kick the coal habit.

Asian marker prices for coal last year were around 40% lower than in 2010, averaging around $63.50/tonne.

Newcastle coal futures – a benchmark price contract for Asia – were trading around $71.95/tonne at the end of September, down from around $84/tonne in January 2014.

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