One of the main takeaways is that switching from a high-emitting inhaler to one that doesn’t use a greenhouse gas propellant “could save 150–400 kg [carbon dioxide equivalent] annually; roughly equivalent to installing wall insulation at home, recycling or cutting out meat.”
What generally has been missing from the headlines, however, is a sense of proportion: In percentage terms, how much do inhalers contribute to our total carbon emissions?
The study doesn’t directly answer this question, but it does calculate the carbon footprint for inhalers in Britain, where the researchers are based. In England, they estimate, it came to 635 kilotons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017.
By comparison, the nation’s total carbon footprint that year was 449 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. That means asthma inhalers represented 0.14 percent of all carbon emissions.
It’s hard to square a number that small with a headline that says inhalers are “choking the planet.” And many asthmatics already feel singled out for the minuscule carbon footprint of a medication that, in many cases, is literally lifesaving.
“Patients, healthcare providers, and policy makers must keep these findings in perspective,” the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America said in a statement. It noted that more than “3,600 people die each year from asthma” and emphasized that asthmatics should continue taking their medication as prescribed.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung condition that can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, according to the Mayo Clinic. Asthma is responsible for about 2 million emergency room visits in the United States each year.
As the AAFA sees it, taking small individual steps, such as switching to a different type of inhaler, can be useful when patients are able to do so without putting their health at risk. “However,” the group writes, “we recommend focus remain on other large-scale improvements we can make to reduce carbon footprints, methane and ozone emissions.”
That’s a nod to the tension at play as individuals and societies grapple with how best to slow climate change. For much of the 2000s, policymakers and business leaders homed in on individual choice as a response to global warming. Consumers have been advised to track their carbon footprints, to turn off their lights, to buy the right cars, to stop flying everywhere, to eliminate turkey from their Thanksgiving dinners, to stop having kids, to calculate their pets’ carbon footprints, to ration their Internet use, to stop using toilet paper, and to shower only once a week.
In short, nearly every choice a person makes in a given day, from their morning wake-up call to their evening nightcap, can be framed in stark climatological terms. Yet the carbon bean-counting has made little difference: carbon dioxide emissions set record highs year after year after year.
As a result, many climate activists are warning that the market will not solve our problem, as the world’s 7.7 billion people cannot simply buy our way to lower emissions. Minimizing one’s own carbon footprint – buying the right asthma inhalers, for example – will certainly help. But what’s needed, they say, is radical systemic change.
“What we need is for our politicians and the people in power start to listen to the current, best available science,” as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg recently put it in a statement declining to accept a Nordic environmental award.
Meanwhile, air pollution in the United States is on the rise again as a result, in part, of the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental standards. As the AAFA points out, poor air quality is one of the chief aggravators of asthma – causing the same symptoms that require medication to relieve.