Air pollution attributed to energy production and consumption has created a major public health crisis. Over 6 million deaths are attributed each year to poor air pollution, making this the world’s fourth-largest threat to human health, behind high blood-pressure, diet and smoking.
Without the rapid investment and deployment of innovative clean technology solutions the way the world produces and uses energy will take a major toll on human life and future generations.
Energy production and consumption, mostly from unregulated, poorly regulated or inefficient fuel combustion, is the single most destructive man-made source of air pollutant emissions:
85% of particulate matter and almost all of the sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides originates from fuel combustion alone.
These three toxins are responsible for the biggest impacts of air pollution, either directly or once transformed into other pollutants via chemical reactions in the atmosphere.
They are emitted mainly as a result of:
Poverty: the wood and other solid fuels that more than 2.7 billion people use for cooking, and kerosene used for lighting (and in some countries also for cooking), create smoky environments that are associated with around 3.5 million premature deaths each year.
These effects are felt mostly in developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where incomplete burning of biomass accounts for more than half of emissions of particulate matter. Finer particles, whether inhaled indoors or outdoors, are particularly harmful to health as they can penetrate deep into the lungs.
Fossil Fuel-intensive development and urbanization: coal and oil have powered economic growth in many countries, but their unabated combustion in power plants, industrial facilities and vehicles is the main cause of the outdoor pollution linked to around 3 million premature deaths each year. Coal is responsible for around 60% of global combustion-related sulfur dioxide emissions – a cause of respiratory illnesses and a precursor of acid rain.
Fuels used for transport, first and foremost diesel, generate more than half the nitrogen oxides emitted globally, which can trigger respiratory problems and the formation of other hazardous particles and pollutants, including ozone.
Cities can easily become pollution hotspots, as they concentrate people, energy use, construction activity and traffic. The impact of urban vehicle emissions is heightened by the fact that they are discharged not from the top of tall chimneys but directly into the street-level air that pedestrians breathe.
Some framework for solutions:
Avoid pollutant emissions by providing energy services more efficiently or in a way that does not involve fuel combustion. Measures include higher efficiency standards, increased support to non-combustion renewable energy and alternatives to liquids fuels for transport, and improvements in public transport and urban planning.
Innovate to reduce pollution abatement costs via technology improvements that will also reduce costs for the post-Paris energy transition.
Reduce pollutant emissions to the atmosphere, via stringent emissions limits on combustion plants and vehicles, controls on industrial processes, fuel switching to less polluting fuels and strict regulation of fuel quality.
Joshua D Mosshart MSFS, CHFC, CLU
Source: UN & IEA