Air pollution kills 6.5 million people every year, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), and energy production is one of the biggest culprits. As Reuters reports, millions more will die in the coming decades if changes aren’t made:
Around 6.5 million deaths globally are attributed each year to poor air quality inside and outside, making it the world’s fourth-largest threat to human health, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking…The release of these pollutants is mainly due to the unregulated or inefficient production and use of energy, the IEA said in a special report on energy and air pollution.
Without action, annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution will increase to 4.5 million in 2040 from around 3 million currently. Premature deaths due to household air pollution however, should fall to 2.9 million from 3.5 million. Asia will account for almost 90 percent of the rise in deaths.
Climate change is the top priority for environmentalists these days, and when they advocate for their favored renewable options like solar and wind, they focus on the fact that these sources don’t emit greenhouse gases. Perhaps just as importantly, though, are the local air pollutants they don’t emit—those have very real public health consequences now, as opposed to the less tangible and more long-term effects of a warming world.
The solution isn’t as simple as the one greens will offer up, though—wind turbines and solar panels can’t fix this by themselves, not least because renewables remain a too-expensive option that require heavy government subsidies. Nuclear energy has a big role to play—those reactors are the world’s green energy workhorses, and while they can also provide power without emitting greenhouse gases or deadly air pollutants, unlike renewables they’re capable of working consistently.
Perhaps the most promising option we have in the coming years is natural gas, which burns much cleaner than coal, and emits half as much carbon dioxide. We know coal to be our dirtiest energy option, but countries rely on it because it’s cheap. That’s now changing, as a flood of new supplies of natural gas is driving prices of that cleaner burning hydrocarbon down below the price of coal, leading to a market-induced displacement of that sooty rock. America’s shale revolution has itself unlocked enormous new reserves of natural gas, and in so doing has been a force for green good. There’s no better evidence of that fact than the recently reported news that America’s monthly coal-fired power production just dropped to a 38 year low.
But most of the increases in the air pollution death count are expected to come from Asia. The region will benefit from dropping LNG prices (again a function of surging supplies from the United States, as well as Australia and Qatar), but it also needs to pursue its own natural gas resources. China has the world’s largest estimated reserves of shale gas, but (for a number of reasons) has been slow to follow the American lead in exploiting them. China has struggled mightily with toxic smog, and over the weekend was forced to shutter a waste incineration plant to appease protesters concerned about that facility’s effects on local air quality. These sorts of problems aren’t going away, and they’re not just a public health crisis, they’re a destabilizing force for Beijing.
Air pollution continues to plague countries around the world, but a smart future energy mix consisting of nuclear power, natural gas, and intelligently sited renewables could save millions of lives.