Aerial view of pollution being emitted from steel factories in Hancheng, Shaanxi, China
How deadly is air pollution?
01:07 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Many premature deaths around the globe are due to air pollution, which can cause heart, lung and other diseases. New research suggests that a rapid reduction in air pollution emissions would save millions of lives.

Worldwide, 3.61 million people are dying each year due to outdoor pollution caused by fossil fuels, an international team of researchers estimates. Fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas, are responsible for about 78% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (and about 76% of US greenhouse gas emissions).

An additional 1.94 million premature deaths occur as a result of air pollution from other sources, including residential energy use and agricultural activities, according to the authors.

Beyond the direct health benefits, rapidly decreasing fossil fuel emissions would increase rainfall in drought-prone regions and boost food security, they say.

“The mutual goals of clean air and a stable climate under the World Health Organization guidelines and the Paris Agreement require a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels,” wrote the authors of the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

International agreement on limiting emissions

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming in the 21st century to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius (between 2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). A phaseout of fossil fuels is required to prevent temperatures from rising beyond this internationally agreed goal, according to the authors of the study, while some scientists argue that removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using other geoengineering techniques may also be required.

For the new study, the researchers used a global model to estimate the climate and public health outcomes attributable to fossil fuel use.

Each year, between 2.96 million and 4.21 million premature deaths occur due to outdoor air pollution caused by fossil fuels, according to their analysis. In the United States alone, there are 194,000 annual deaths due to these causes, while China sees 1.6 million deaths and India 692,000 deaths.

“Globally, fossil-fuel-related emissions account for about 65% of the excess mortality,” the authors wrote. These emissions also account for nearly 70% of climate cooling, they say.

Removing fossil fuel emissions would increase “rainfall by 10-70% over densely populated regions in India and 10-30% over northern China, and by 10-40% over Central America, West Africa, and the drought prone Sahel,” they wrote. (The Sahel is a region of western and north-central Africa that includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. It has been suffering from chronic food shortages caused by economic crisis, pov