Study Links 6.5 Million Deaths Each Year to Air Pollution

Source: By STANLEY REED, New York Times • Posted: Monday, June 27, 2016

A coal-fired power plant on the outskirts of Beijing.

A sobering report released on Monday by the International Energy Agency says air pollution has become a major public health crisis leading to around 6.5 million deaths each year, with “many of its root causes and cures” found in the energy industry.

The air pollution study is the first for the agency, an energy security group based in Paris, which is expanding its mission under its executive director, Fatih Birol.

The agency, whose 29 members are wealthy, industrialized countries, was founded in response to the Arab oil embargo in 1973 to coordinate international responses to energy issues. It is perhaps best known for its monthly oil market reports that are eagerly awaited by traders.

Mr. Birol, an economist, argues that pressing concerns about climate change and the emergence of countries like China and India as major energy consumers and polluters mean that the agency needs to shift its strategy.

“To stay relevant,” he said in an interview on Friday, we “need to work much closer with new emerging energy economies.”

Mr. Birol has been working to build bridges with China in particular, which energy experts say is crucial to the success of global efforts to reduce emissions.

Fatih Birol is the executive director of the International Energy Agency. Eric Piermont / Agence-France Presse — Getty Images

“To solve today’s biggest energy problems, the I.E.A. needs to have the world’s most important energy players as part of it,” said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Environmental issues, Mr. Birol said, are very important to emerging economies like India and China, whose cities are often plagued by choking smog.

Helping these countries solve problems through increasing energy efficiency or filtering out pollutants can make progress on climate change goals. We need to make these countries “understand that their problems are our problems,” Mr. Birol said.

Mr. Birol appears to be well-suited to this approach. Born in Turkey, he obtained his doctorate in energy economics in Vienna and began his career as an analyst at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the oil producers’ group, often seen as having an agenda rivaling the agency’s.

Mr. Birol appears to be pushing to make the agency crucial in coordinating a global approach to energy-related efforts. This includes carrying out the global emissions reduction agreement reached in Paris last year. “The world needs a global energy body,” said Neil Hirst, a senior policy fellow at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College in London.

Mr. Birol said that through relatively low-cost actions, like adopting more ambitious clean air standards and more effective policies for monitoring and enforcement, countries could make major strides in reducing pollution over the next quarter-century.

China, for instance, needs to retire polluting coal-fired power plants and to establish stricter standards for motor vehicles.

Such changes could produce big benefits. In India, the proportion of the population exposed to a high concentration of fine particles, a type of pollution, would fall to below 20 percent in 2040, from 60 percent today. In China, it would drop to below one quarter, from well over one half.