Death by Electricity: How Power Demand Kills Millions Annually

Millions of people die every year from inhaling pollutants created by the energy sector, a new report shows. 

Updated
Environment
3 min read
Polluted Mumbai on the horizon. (Photo Courtesy: Flickr/<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/uopfindsomt/">Emma Jespersen</a>)

A tight throat, low lung capacity, shortness of breath, and a reduced life expectancy. These are some of the consequences of living in a big, polluted city. For most people, this is where the symptoms stop. But for millions of people around the world, the consequences are deadlier.

Every year, 3 million people die prematurely as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

In India alone, 590,000 people die because of outdoor air pollution a year – and air pollution has become the fifth-leading cause of death in the country.

Private cabs in Mumbai. Photo: Reuters
Private cabs in Mumbai. Photo: Reuters

Initiatives like Odd-Even, launched by Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, tackle part of the problem by temporarily limiting the number of vehicles on Delhi’s roads. But as the most recent experiment in April showed, outdoor air pollution is much more complex than fumes coughed out by cars.

Also Read: Dear Mr. Kejriwal, Why Did You Think Odd-Even Would Work?

Cars contribute less to air pollution than coal burning, fly ash and construction, according to a study from IIT, Kanpur.

And one of the main culprits is the energy sector, which we rely on to fight away the dark and relieve us from the summer heat. Electricity production spews out some of the worst pollutants into the air, like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Plants don’t need to be close to cities to inflict damage – pollutants are often carried hundreds of kilometres by wind currents.

At the international level, growing electricity demands present a challenge for climate change-related policy. Electricity is a crucial means of alleviating poverty because it allows people to work longer hours, and allows children to study after school. But renewable energy is far from being a dominant source of energy.

In countries like India, providing electricity to the entire nation will require an increased reliance on coal. Already, 44 percent of the country’s energy is produced from coal, 24 percent from biomass and 23 percent from oil. Renewable energy, natural gas and nuclear power collectively produce 9 percent of the country’s electricity.

Air pollution in several parts of Delhi is at a critically high level. (Photo: Reuters)
Air pollution in several parts of Delhi is at a critically high level. (Photo: Reuters)

While regulations for fossil fuel plants could reduce the pollution being churned out by the millions of tonnes, an increased reliance on coal will ultimately lead to higher emissions – and a greater number of deaths.

By 2040, 900,000 people will die prematurely as a result of air pollution in India alone, according to the new International Energy Agency. On a global scale, the number will rise to 4.5 million.

Clean air is a basic human right that most of the world’s population lacks. No country – rich or poor – can claim that the task of tackling air pollution is complete. But governments are far from powerless to act and need to act now.
Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director

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