Oh Sure; Blame it on the Cows

I remember years ago first reading about “greenhouse gases,” specifically the emissions from cows.  “Farting cows” was the great joke of the day, for a while.  Little did we know that we were seeing the genesis of a religious cult.

Well, the Max Planck Institut für Chemie in Mainz has released a study, authored by scientists from Germany, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., analyzing worldwide premature deaths from air pollution in the form of ozone and particulates (I assume this is to distinguish mortality that results from actual poisons emitted into the atmosphere, in the fashion of Bhopal, for example; the synopsis at the institute’s website describes the subject of their inquiry as the “most important” airborne contaminants, however).  I ran across a write-up in the FAZHere’s an English-language version of the study, published in Nature.

The authors not only calculate how many premature deaths are attributable to air pollution worldwide, but also break it down by region, country, and origin.  The long and short is that they figure 3.3 million premature deaths annually from particulate air pollution, 1.4 million of them in China and a further 65,000 in India, those two being the worst-affected.  Asia as a whole accounts for 75% of the total premature deaths.  In the EU as a whole it’s 180,000 (no figures for the U.S. are given).  The figure is 35,000 in Germany, which the authors point out is roughly ten times the total annual traffic fatalities.

The dominant proximate causes of death are stroke and heart attack, accounting for just under 75% of the total, with most of the remainder divided between bronchial diseases and lung cancer.  No surprises there.

Where the surprise comes in is when the authors analyze where the pollution is coming from.  Industry?  Nope.  Motor vehicles?  Nope.  Power generation?  Nope.  Not power generation?  Not even in China?  Not China, which is commissioning brand-new coal-fired power plants at the rate of multiple facilities per month?  None of those is the worst sinner, it seems.  The single greatest source of pollution is “household energy use such as heating and cooking,” accounting for fully one-third of the premature deaths, followed by agriculture, racking up a quarter of worldwide deaths (although in some countries — Russia, the Ukraine, and Germany — it’s near 40% of the total).  Motor vehicles in contrast only account for 5% of all such deaths each year.  In fact, industry, power generation, “biomass” burning (not sure what is included in that), and motor vehicles all lumped together only account for a third of the annual harvest.  Comparison:  Natural sources, such as dust storms in North Africa and the Middle East, account for a quarter of the total premature deaths.

The household energy use includes diesel generators (Gentle Reader must recall that large portions of the world are not served by the TVA, ConEdison, Duke Power, or NWE; ergo, if you want your perishables not to rot and the lights to come on, you have your own generator), heating, and cooking fires.  In Asia especially hundreds of millions of people still heat and cook over wood or coal fires.  Come to think of it, when I was a child I’d say a sizeable minority of people in my home county heated at least partly with wood; I know we did.

So over a half of all premature deaths attributable to air pollution from any source can be laid against people raising the morning bacon or lunch-time hamburger, or fertilizing their wheat or rice fields or paddies, and then cooking/baking it in a heated room.

A couple of things to bear in mind when contemplating this study:

First it’s a study on mortality, which is pretty easy to measure, and not morbidity, which is much harder to get your hands around.  Air pollution that just makes you feel wretched without actually killing you is still air pollution.  And what is the correct point at which “feeling wretched” should be counted as morbidity?  A day when you’re unable to function at whatever occupation you have?  What if you’re already unemployed for whatever reason (age, illness, or physical handicap)?  That shouldn’t make a difference, should it?  The same considerations would apply to a standard like “can’t function at normal capacities”; what is “normal capacities” for someone who’s 85 and retired?  And how do you measure “normal” or “capacities” for that matter?  And since morbidity can be very transient (think: there were plenty of days in Victorian London when the air was just fine to breathe . . . and then there were the “London particulars” which could and did kill hundreds at a pop), at what level of frequency do you count a person as being adversely affected by particulate/ozone pollution?  All of which is to say that this study, while about as useful as you can get the data, still under-measures the true scope of the problem.

Second, I did not see mention of how many total “premature” deaths there are from all causes, worldwide.  Bear in mind this could include infectious disease, motor vehicle accident, war, famine, or any number of things.  In fact, you could make the argument that anything other than infirmities of age or non-infectious disease should count as a “premature” death.  On the other hand, that definition may so water down the concept as to render it not really useful in analyzing what’s going on in the world and what should be do about it.  But in the absence of knowing how many total “premature” deaths occur each year, we’re deprived of a handy yardstick to measure how serious a problem is 3.3 million premature deaths from particulate/ozone air pollution.

Now for some perspective.  The worldwide “crude death rate,” or the number of deaths per 1,000 population, estimated as of mid-year, is most recently estimated at 7.98.  [N.b.  That figure comes from the CIA’s The World Factbook.  They also have country-by-country figures; those range from a high of 17.49 for South Africa to a low of 1.53 for Qatar.  The U.S. figure is 8.15, so we’re still above the global rate . . . as is Switzerland, with 8.10.  Learn a little something new every day, don’t we?]  Applied against the July, 2015 estimated gross world population of 7,256,490,011, that produces total deaths of 57,906,790.  The 3.3 million premature deaths from particulate/ozone air pollution account for 5.7% of the total, and the 2,475,000 that are from causes other than natural account for 4.27% of the total.  Phrased the other way around, over 95% of all deaths worldwide do not occur sooner than actuarially predicted as a result of anthropogenic air-pollution causes.

More to the point, if only 33.33% — 1,099,989 — of all premature deaths from particulate/ozone air pollution result from the combined effects of power generation, motor vehicle traffic, and industrial activity, then those sources account for a whacking 1.9% of gross human mortality.  Against that toll must be balanced in any intellectually and morally honest calculus the life-prolonging, life-improving effects of industrial activity, inexpensive transportation of humans and the products of their hands, and cheap energy.

Not to dismiss air pollution, even from farting cows, as a significant issue to the mitigation of which humanity ought to devote some of its attention and resources, but when a problem accounts for that small a proportion of total human mortality — when over 98% of deaths do not result from those causes — it does suggest that perhaps anthropogenic air pollution does not merit upending free societies and destroying significant paths of human liberty in order to mitigate its effects.

Then again, maybe I’m missing something.

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