Climate and Environment
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

World’s top economies responsible for millions of pollution deaths, mostly in poor countries

Eleven of the major economies caused more than half of the premature deaths in other countries, study finds

A thermal power plant seen in Changshu, China. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)

Fossil fuel burning by the world’s richest nations and their citizens’ consumption habits cause half the global deaths from fine-particle pollution, according to a study released Tuesday. Most of these deaths take place in developing countries, researchers found, laying bare stark environmental inequities.

The new findings come as world leaders meet in Glasgow, Scotland, at COP26, in an effort to combat climate change. Particle pollution, which is dangerous when inhaled, is different from the greenhouse gases heating the planet but comes from burning coal, oil and gas.

Around 4 million people die prematurely from particle pollution each year: The study suggests that 2 million of these deaths are tied to goods sent to and consumed by the world’s 20 largest economies. Researchers estimated that one premature death resulted from the lifetime consumption of every 28 people living in a Group of 20 country.

G-20 countries make up nearly two-thirds of the global population, 80 percent of the world’s economic output and three-quarters of international trade. They also have large environmental footprints when it comes to consumer products, with mostly developing countries manufacturing these goods and suffering the health impacts that arise from these operations.

“Most of the people [are] now getting to understand, okay, a lot of consumption [produces] greenhouse gas,” said Keisuke Nansai, lead author of the study and researcher at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan. “This paper says, okay, a lot of consumption also leads to 4 million deaths in the world due to [particulate air pollution]. But the G-20 has 2 million deaths’ responsibility.”

Nansai and his colleagues evaluated countries’ environmental footprints using a consumer-based approach, allocating emissions along the supply chain for a product and its final place of consumption. For example, a shirt bought in the United States has an emissions footprint across several countries. The cotton could be produced in India and sent to China for manufacturing. Power to create the clothes may come from oil, perhaps from Saudi Arabia.

Along the production route, harmful pollutants can be released into the atmosphere. The researchers specifically looked at deaths attributed to particulate matter less than 2.5 microns, called PM2.5. These tiny pollutants can travel to the lungs and cause health problems including respiratory illnesses, heart disease, lung cancer and more.

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“My calculation is that all of the premature deaths due to PM2.5 during the supply chain should be attributed to the consumer,” said Nansai. “At a business level, we have a potential to switch our view from the concept from the production-based to the consumption-based footprint thinking.”

The team mapped PM2.5 concentrations and estimated the health impacts from the particulate exposure in 199 countries and regions. Then they linked the information to the trade and consumption of goods in 19 of the G-20 countries (excluding the European Union, as the bloc is not entitled to presidency of the group).

They found about 1.98 million premature deaths occurred worldwide at an average age of 67 years. About 78,600 deaths occurred in children below 6 years old.

Further, 11 of the selected largest economies caused more than 50 percent of premature deaths in other countries. Most of the major economies had large footprints in China and India, which also had the largest total number of premature deaths.

In the United States, around 62 percent of the deaths tied to its consumer footprints occurred outside of the country, with significant impacts in China, India, Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Canada’s footprint showed 85 percent of premature PM2.5-related deaths occurred outside of the country. About 98 percent of premature deaths tied to Saudi Arabia’s footprint occurred in foreign countries.

The study used data from 2010 due to availability, but Nansai says the results are still relevant today. In countries such as China, India and Nepal, air quality may have slightly improved in recent years, but the health risks due to PM2.5 haven’t changed much, he said.

“In terms of health risk of PM2.5, the relationship between the air [pollutant] concentration and the risk is not linear,” said Nansai. “Even though the concentration becomes better, this doesn’t change, so there is a need to improve air quality much, much more.”

Finding a solution is not easy

World leaders are meeting at the United Nation’s COP26 conference in Glasgow to negotiate how to curb greenhouse gas emissions, among other environmental pledges. But those negotiations will probably not directly address these consumer-based footprints, primarily because nations are addressing their own emissions produced within their country.

“Unfortunately, still at the government level, each nation [is] still focusing on the domestic issues. That's a big gap,” said Nansai. “A discussion at COP26 of carbon footprint neutrality rather than direct national emissions would help solve the twin problems of climate and human health.”

Perhaps more helpful, Nansai said, is discussing these issues at the summit meetings attended by the responsible G-20 nations. The 2021 G-20 summit, which took place Saturday and Sunday, addressed several international issues. Leaders agreed to halt publicly financing coal-fired plants abroad by the end of the year. They also recognized the need to hit net-zero emissions by the mid-century and to provide $100 billion each year to poorer countries more susceptible to climate change.

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“G-20 is not representative of all the nations,” said Nansai. “But G-20 has a chance and the platform to start to negotiate a discussion to solve this problem.”

During the U.N. summit, the White House also released plans to promote better international cooperation for near-term supply chain disruptions and diversify the process in the long term, including addressing issues such as raw materials, manufacturing, shipping, logistics, warehousing and distribution.

Companies have also taken steps to reduce their environmental impact of consumer goods. Many companies, such as Apple, Microsoft and Toyota, disclose the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and water use involved in their products but not the amount of associated air pollution.

“Without the international collaboration, this situation will continue,” Nansai said. “My message to all stakeholders, including the national government and also companies, [is to] watch their supply chain environmental impact.”