We are on the cusp of ending our reliance on energy sources that kill us and kill the planet. But the cusp often feels like the longest part of the journey. Even as we can envision, and are materializing, a world where the majority of inputs to the power grids are clean and renewable, many are still choking on the dirty air of the carbon age — and choking at different rates, depending on circumstances beyond their control.
We received the highest cost estimate of pollution from fossil fuels ever, in brand new research that says 8.7 million deaths a year occur from particulates generated by diesels, gasoline-powered vehicles, coal-fired power plants, and other fossil fuel-based energy and transportation sources. The researchers point out that this 8.7 million death toll (based on analysis of 2018) is much higher than previous estimates, and is “roughly equal to deaths attributed to smoking.”
Particulate pollution is ubiquitous. Not only that, it moves around, ignoring human conceived borders. Its mobility is partly attributable to the fact that the particles “hover in the atmosphere ‘up to one to two weeks,’ and can therefore “be transported long distances.” And it doesn’t take much: even a little bit of particulate pollution can be deadly. That’s a newer finding — we had never really asked before how much it takes to be linked to mortality.
But now we know. And, combining this new information with our existing knowledge, we also know that most of the people who will die from fossil fuels will be poor. The most concise statement of this disproportionality comes from the United Nations Environmental Program, citing the World Health Organization.
“The poor,” UNEP says, “tend to be priced out of the leafy suburbs where there are fewer highways and air quality is better.” This disparity can be found at all scales: municipal, regional, national and international.
A post by the Borgen Project goes into greater detail, explaining that it’s not just location, but the entirety of inequality — material inequality — between rich and poor. “Even when both affluent and impoverished people experience the same exposure,” the post reads, “air pollution affects the health of the impoverished more.” This is because of other differences that compound exposure or which are comorbidities, like access to healthcare and the likelihood of working in hazardous or polluted environments. According to this Atlantic article, In China, a vast portion of urban workers are internal migrants or disproportionately outdoors in very polluted cities like Beijing. Workers delivering messages and packages via bike, walking or public transit, or those who work in industries with poor air circulation, will breathe a lot more of those particulates than executives working in air-filtered and environmentally-controlled offices.
A shift to renewables will make things better eventually, but in the meantime large infrastructure projects, automobile traffic, and the burning of coal — among other things — continue to produce more deadly particulates. And, building the infrastructure for renewables still produces particulates, along with (ironically) CO2.
What’s clear, however, is that the problem we are contending with is not simply the use of fossil fuels but environmental racism and classism, as well as the refusal to give up long outdated and toxic forms of production, construction, energy use, and transportation. With new indications that the death toll of fossil fuels is even greater than we thought, a transition to renewable and non-toxic energy sources is all the more urgent.