Air pollution causes roughly four million premature deaths every year, but these deaths are not distributed equally across the globe. Consumption in the G20 nations is responsible for half of these deaths, according to new research.
The paper, published in Nature Communications, examines the effect of consumption worldwide on particulates in air – specifically, particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, or PM2.5. According to the World Health Organisation, these particles cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and cancers leading to over 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016 – mostly in low and middle-income countries.
While many wealthier countries are taking steps to clean up their own atmosphere, this study points out that consumption has a polluting effect beyond many nations’ borders.
“The reality is that developing countries cannot be expected to implement such countermeasures without financial and technical support from the international community,” write the researchers in their paper.
“We aim to identify the consumer responsibility of G20 nations for the global premature deaths caused by both primary and secondary PM2.5 particles.”
Read more: Air pollution may impair cognitive function
The researchers examined the global PM2.5 footprint of consumption in the 19 nations that make up the G20 (the collection of smaller European Union member states, who represent country number 20, were not included).
Using data from 2010, they calculated the number of particles emitted as a result of consumption in each country, whether these particles were emitted within the country’s borders, and how many premature deaths this contributed to.
The data suggests that in 2010, the G20 nations were responsible for 1.938 million premature deaths, plus or minus roughly 300,000. Of these, 78,600 were infant deaths.
Australia as a whole was responsible for roughly 5,740 premature deaths per year, 82% of which occurred overseas.
China, India, Russia and the USA had the highest mortality footprint, but of these four, only the USA was responsible for a majority of deaths occurring outside its borders.
The researchers argue that the G20 nations should take responsibility for these transnational deaths, and bring in policies to reduce them.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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