Updated Oct 26, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Report: Fossil fuel addiction killing millions and worsening climate crisis

Goats graze in garbage, backdropped by the Sasol Ltd. Secunda coal-to-liquids plant in Mpumalanga, South Africa on Monday, March 21, 2022.

Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fossil fuel "addiction" is rapidly worsening climate change as the related effects of extreme weather leave 98 million people facing severe food insecurity and heat-related deaths surge, a new report warns.

The big picture: The burning of fossil fuels including coal, oil and natural gas that cause toxic air pollution kills some 11,800 Americans and about 1.2 million people globally every year, according to the report, published in the medical journal The Lancet Tuesday ahead of next month's UN Cop27 climate summit in Egypt.

What they found: The annual Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report examined 103 countries and found that the global land area impacted by extreme drought — like the one gripping much of the U.S. West — had grown by 29% in the past 50 years.

  • Heat-related deaths jumped 68% between 2017-2021, compared to 2000-2004, as exposure to days of very-high or extremely-high fire danger rose in 61% of countries from 2001–2004 to 2018–2021, the University College London-led study found.
  • Heat exposure led to 470 billion potential labour hours lost globally in 2021, disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income countries and worsening the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

Of note: Global warming is leading to the spread of infectious diseases, per the report — which involved 99 researchers from 51 institutions, including the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization

  • Malaria transmission rose 32.1% in highland areas of the Americas and 14.9% in Africa in 2012-2021, compared to the 1950s.

State of play: Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, said in an emailed statement accompanying the report that "fossil fuel-driven climate change is reducing family incomes due to heat waves that impact worker productivity."

  • It's also "aggravating food insecurity through diminished crop yields" and the "worst impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change are being felt by developing countries — those least responsible for having caused it."

Meanwhile, the carbon intensity of the global energy system, the biggest single contributing sector to global greenhouse gas emissions, has dropped by less than 1% from 1992 levels, according to the report.

Zoom in: Researchers found 69 out of the 86 governments analyzed in the report subsidized fossil fuels at a collective cost of $400 billion in 2019

  • Governments "have so far failed to provide the smaller sum of $100 billion per year to help support climate action in lower income countries," the study noted.

The bottom line: "The world is edging closer to multiple tipping points that, once crossed, will drive temperatures well above 2°C ... current global actions are insufficient," the researchers warn in a linked editorial published in The Lancet.

What they're saying: "The climate crisis is killing us," said United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres in a statement responding to the report, as he called for "common-sense investments in renewable energy."

Between the lines: The report's description of fossil fuel use as an addiction is accurate, said the University of Maryland's Sacoby Wilson and University of Calgary's Courtney Howard, who weren't involved in the report, per AP.

  • Howard, a professor of medicine, noted the increase in heat deaths hadn't thwarted fossil fuel use and the "continuing in habitual behavior despite known harms" was the definition of addiction.
  • Environmental health professor Wilson told AP the report underscores that people "are dying now" from climate change's effects. "Droughts, desertification, not having food, flooding, tsunamis," Wilson said, citing the deadly floods that devastated Pakistan and Nigeria this year.

Go deeper: Extreme heat's health consequences

Editor's note: This article has been updated with more details from the report and further context.

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