Air Pollution from Fossil Fuels Costs $8 Billion Per Day, New Research Finds

Children play near the Suralaya coal power plant in the city of Cilegon, Indonesia.

Children play near the Suralaya coal power plant in the city of Cilegon, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

The economic and health costs of air pollution from burning fossil fuels totaled $2.9 trillion in 2018, calculated in the form of work absences, years of life lost, and premature deaths, according to a new report by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). The cost represents 3.3 percent of global GDP, or about $8 billion per day.

“Air pollution is a threat to our health and our economies,” Minwoo Son, a clean air campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, which commissioned the report, said in a statement. “Every year, air pollution from fossil fuels takes millions of lives, increases our risk of stroke, lung cancer, and asthma, and costs us trillions of dollars.”

The study, the first of its kind to quantify the global impacts of air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, focused on the health impacts of three specific types of pollutants: Nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and fine particulate matter, which has the greater impact, causing about 1.8 billion days of missed work due to disease and $2.2 trillion in air pollution costs every year. Nitrogen dioxide and ozone pollution cost $351 billion and $380 billion, respectively. Together, air pollution from these three pollutants is responsible for 4.5 million premature deaths around the world each year, the study said.

The analysis also included a regional breakdown of air pollution impacts. The researchers found that the most premature deaths from fossil fuel-related air pollution in 2018 were in mainland China (1.8 million), India (1 million), and the United States (230,000). As a result, those three countries also faced the highest annual costs: $900 billion in China, $600 billion in the U.S., and $150 billion in India.

The report also highlights several key solutions to reduce air pollution, improve public health, and mitigate climate change. “This is a problem that we know how to solve by transitioning to renewable energy sources, phasing out diesel and petrol cars, and building public transport,” Son said. “We need to take into account the real cost of fossil fuels, not just for our rapidly heating planet, but also for our health.”

—Elisheva Mittelman