Dirty Energy Is Bad for Your Health

The above image is drawn from an infographic produced by The Lancet.

Think of a future where we all have access to affordable, clean energy and you might imagine the environmental benefits. But there is the potential to improve the prospects for the health of millions of people, as well as making contributions to wider development objectives.

Lack of access to affordable, clean energy for all is a major cause of ill health worldwide.

The burning of fossil fuels -- notably coal, lignite and diesel fuel -- is the major contributor to outdoor, fine particulate, air pollution. These tiny particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs and recent data strengthens the evidence linking air pollution with increased risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as lung cancer. Air-quality monitoring from 1600 cities across the world shows that air-pollution levels frequently exceed WHO guideline levels, sometimes by ten-fold or more. Coal burning is also the single largest contributor to mercury contamination in the environment.

Three billion or so people, largely in low- and middle-income countries, rely on burning solid fuels -- wood, crop wastes, charcoal, dung and sometimes coal -- for cooking, heating and other purposes. These fuels are often burnt in open fires or highly inefficient stoves, leading to levels of exposure to air pollution that are up to 100-fold greater than WHO-guideline levels, with damaging consequences for health. They also increase the risk of burns.

Recent World Health Organization estimates suggest that exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution is responsible for around 3.7 million premature deaths a year, the majority due to ischemic heart disease and stroke. Although 88 percent of deaths due to outdoor air pollution are in low- and middle-income countries, it remains a major health problem in high-income countries. For example, it is estimated to reduce average life expectancy by more than eight months, even in the European Union, and no safe level, below which there are no adverse effects, has been identified.

Exposure to household air pollution is estimated to cause about 4.3 million deaths annually. As there is some overlap between outdoor and household air pollution, total deaths from exposure to fine-particulate air pollution are thought to be around 7 million annually -- one in eight of all deaths worldwide. Nearly a quarter of all premature deaths due to stroke and 15 percent of those due to ischemic heart disease as well as one-third of those from chronic-obstructive lung disease in low- and middle-income countries, are thought to be due to exposure to household air pollution. In children, it almost doubles the risk of pneumonia.

Collecting fuel often takes several hours each day, exposing women and children to risks of violence and injury and reducing the time available for more productive tasks. Black carbon (sooty particles) and methane released by burning of solid fuels and other sources are short-lived climate pollutants that contribute to climate change. Those people lacking reliable access to electricity often use kerosene lamps for lighting, which increases the risk of burns and poisoning from fuel ingestion, as well as being an important source of black carbon.

When the effects on human health are taken into account, it is becoming increasingly evident that we are massively subsidizing fossil fuels. A recent report from the International Monetary Fund, for example, estimates that the subsidies amount to more than $5 tn worldwide, largely due to the costs of environmental and health impacts. China has the largest subsidies in dollar terms, Ukraine in percent of GDP and Qatar in per capita subsidies.

In comparison, the additional cost of decarbonizing the world economy sufficiently to give an 80 percent chance of keeping global average temperature increase at two degrees C has been estimated by the International Energy Agency at around $1 tn per annum up to 2050.

Even in high-income countries there are major health and economic benefits from reducing air pollution. In the U.S., for example, human health benefits due to air-quality improvements resulting from policies to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions can offset the cost of the policies by up to ten times. In East Asia, the marginal benefits may be 10-70 times the projected marginal costs.

President Obama's Clean Power Plan, designed to cut emissions from the power sector by 32 percent in 2030, against a 2005 baseline, specifically cites the benefits to health as a supporting argument for the plan.

There is increasing interest in improving access to clean energy for health and other benefits. Some clean-stove programs have not achieved the predicted benefits because their technical performance in the field was disappointing or because households use different fuels for different purposes -- cooking, heating, lighting, etc. -- and holistic approaches that address all of their requirements are needed.

A range of options are available, including biogas and LPG, together with low-cost induction hobs where reliable electricity is available. The Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, for example, focuses on eight countries to promote "a thriving market for clean cookstoves and fuels, and serve as a learning lab for best-practices" that can be shared with other partner countries. Solar lamps offer major benefits over kerosene lamps by reducing indoor air pollution, the risk of fires and providing a cheaper option for poor families in the medium to long term because there are no fuel payments. As the cost of renewable energy falls, micro-grids can increasingly meet the needs of rural communities for affordable electricity, particularly if storage technologies also become cheaper.

Sustainable Development Goal 7 provides a driver for rapid progress toward a cleaner and more sustainable economy with great potential to improve human health. Taking the health benefits into account can make decisions to invest in clean energy more attractive to policymakers and help accelerate the much-needed transformation to a sustainable economy.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 7.

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