Carbon emissions and air pollution – an unexpected connection

Ths article is available in Bulgarian.

Activists, politicians, lobbyists and media outlets continuously conflate air pollution with carbon emissions, as if the two are identical. Few are consciously aware of the fact that they are mistaken. Most simply don’t know any better. The end result is that a false understanding of the connection between the two has become widespread in society. This is a problem because it misleads people into supporting false political movements, programs and measures.

Air pollution slowly kills around 4.2 million people annually around the world. Мost of the victims are found in countries where biomass plays a leading role in energy consumption – predominantly Africa and Southeast Asia where plant remains, wood, wood coal and dry animal dung are still widely used.

Figure 1 – World mean annual exposure to PM 2.5 in 2015

Cheap electricity leads to clean air

These types of fuels were used by people before the industrial revolution and are currently referred to as “renewable energy sources”. In addition to the death toll noted above we also have to add an additional toll of 3.8 million victims who die as a result of polluted indoor air, most of whom are concentrated in the same locations, but remain outside of the statistics in the map. Since the beginning of the 21st century, increasingly larger quantities of coal and vehicle gases have been added to the pollution caused by biomass burning. Cheap electricity is the first step in the process of modern industrialization and usually leads to a drastic decrease of exposure to polluted air because it replaces biomass use in households. Lately coal generated electricity is increasingly cleaner because practically all new coal power plants have filters. Soon after coal, gasification follows, which leads to even larger gains in the fight for clean air.  

According to the latest evaluation by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) carbon emissions most likely caused 50% of the observed warming over the past 50 years. Most of these emissions come from the richest countries in the world, where people use lots of energy to live well and to enjoy clean air – the USA, Canada, Australia, and some countries in Europe.

Figure 2 – A map showing CO2 emissions per capita in 2017

Note that if the map above showed carbon footprint per capita (based on the final or end consumption, which includes emissions from the production and transportation of goods from places such as China and India), the results between the rich and the poor would be even more stark. For example, „green” Western Europe, and especially the Scandinavian peninsula, would be deep red in color. The claim that the Western world reduced its CO2 emissions in the last years, proving that economic growth can take place without them, is a delusion. This happened because a large part of the high energy production was relocated to Asia and Africa, where the corresponding emissions increased several-fold.

I believe that three things are clear:

  1. Carbon emissions and dirty air are clearly connected – there is almost a perfect reverse correlation between the two*.
  2. If someone conflates air pollution and carbon emissions they are either lying or they have no idea what they are talking about.
  3. Reducing carbon emissions is very difficult because it comes into direct conflict with people’s desire to live better lives, to consume and to breathe cleaner air.

If someone tells you that you can reduce your personal carbon footprint with 1-2-3 steps, you should not waste your time with them. With our current technologies it is very difficult to maintain a high quality of life, including clean air, without the use of fossil fuels. They provide 85% of the energy for our civilization, which includes filters, sulfur dioxide scrubbers, waste treatment plants, electricity generation and battery production for electric vehicles, and many other “green” activities. It will take a long time for this fraction to fall below 50%, and even then the quantity of annual carbon emissions might remain the same because energy usage is constantly growing. Much research and investment in clean energy is needed before we have viable, cheap and abundant sources that can provide for humanity’s needs. 

This isn’t simply my opinion or wish. This is the reality of the world in which we live.

*Clarifying comment: Arabic states are an exception because they have high CO2 emissions and considerable air pollution, which is inevitable due to the constant presence of natural dust from their local desert landscapes.

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