Asian girl wearing mouth mask against haze air pollution in beijing

Consumption of G20 nations responsible for premature deaths of 78,000 infants

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Japanese and Australian researchers have concluded the number of premature deaths worldwide caused by consumption in G20 nations.

While most countries acknowledge that they contribute to global levels of PM2.5 – fine particulate matter – there is little agreement on how much and thus the extent of their financial responsibility. In particular, far harder to measure than the direct production of PM2.5 by factories and cars is the amount caused by consumption.

Their very small size is what makes PM2.5 so dangerous. Easily inhalable, they accumulate inside the lungs, where they severely increase the risk of cancer and other deadly diseases. Yet it is the poor that are especially vulnerable to PM2.5 and die prematurely.

To emphasise the impact that PM2.5 levels from consumption alone have on human health, the study – from the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) in Japan – concluded that the lifetime consumption of just 28 people in G20 nations will cause the premature death of one person worldwide.

“Most deaths are in developing countries and without international coordination the situation will worsen,” said Dr Keisuke Nansai, a research director at the Material Flow Innovation Research Program at the NIES, who had been a visiting professor at ISA of the University of Sydney, and one of the lead authors of the study.

The issue of consumption is a vital question to answer, Nansai said. Unlike direct production, which first affects the producing nation and then spreads across borders to neighbouring nations, the PM2.5 caused by consumption may originate in distant nations and have negligible effects on the consuming nation.

“Pollution in the form of production emissions creates a motive to implement joint PM2.5 reduction measures in neighbouring countries. Such cooperation is unlikely among countries that are geographically distinct,” said Nansai.

G20 members make up more than three-quarters of international trade and the world’s economic output. Therefore, Nansai and his colleagues reasoned, understanding the impact the consumption of these nations has on PM2.5 levels would provide a reliable benchmark.

Using Eora, a database made nearly a decade earlier to measure global supply chains around the world, the study mapped out the emissions made by consumption alone.

The study shows that consumption by the world’s most consuming nations, such as the US and UK, causes a significant number of premature deaths in faraway nations, such as China and India, whereas the premature deaths caused by production habits are more common in neighbouring nations such as Mexico (for the US) and Germany (for the UK).

Covid-19, the pandemic that has changed the world, is a respiratory disease that is most lethal to the elderly. Similarly, the premature victims of PM2.5 are also mostly elderly. However, unlike Covid-19, the study found another group alarmingly susceptible to the PM2.5 produced by consumption.

“We found that the consumption of G20 nations was responsible for 78,000 premature deaths of infants [up to five years old] worldwide,” noted Nansai.

The effect was not too great in most G20 nations, such that the average age of premature deaths was nearly 70 years old. However, in some countries, namely South Africa and Saudi Arabia, premature infant death was so prevalent that the average age of premature deaths was under 60 years old. Similarly, the average age of premature deaths in India and Indonesia barely crossed this threshold.

Nansai and his colleagues stress that if consumption is not considered, most countries will not think they should pay any penalty for these deaths.

“As long as responsibility for infant deaths due to production emissions is the only issue pursued, we can find no rationale for nations to confront the mass death of infants [in faraway nations],” the researchers concluded in the study.

The research paper – 'Consumption in the G20 nations causes particulate air pollution resulting in two million premature deaths annually' – has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

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