Fossil fuel subsidies racking up trillions in health costs

Health costs related to fossil fuel use outweigh taxpayer-funded subsidies by 600%, according to a new study that insists governments should stop pumping money into dirty energy sources.

G20 governments spent $444 billion on oil, gas and coal subsidies in 2014 alone and have long pledged to cut this support, as countries look to decarbonise their economies in line with the Paris Agreement, Sustainable Development Goals and national goals.

A new study by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) estimates that the use of those same fossil fuels leads to $2.76 trillion in health costs in the G20 thanks to air pollution. $229.5bn is incurred by EU countries alone.

It is estimated that fossil fuel combustion costs the lives of 6.5 million people worldwide every year, due to associated illnesses like strokes, heart attacks, cancer and lung disease.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has also branded fossil fuels the main cause of air pollution, with coal power responsible for nearly half of all ambient pollution.

HEAL’s report calls on government’s around the world to switch off the subsidies tap and provided examples of how the money saved could be used to benefit public health.

In Europe, the study reveals that 24.9% of premature deaths caused by air pollution could be prevented in Germany, if fossil fuel subsidies were eliminated and corrective taxes implemented. That figure rises to 41.3% in the UK and 51.3% in coal-loving Poland. In neighbouring Turkey, a massive 73.8% reduction could be achieved.

In terms of preventable deaths from air pollution, Bulgaria stands to gain the most in the EU, as the report estimates a reduction of 89.1%. Fellow Eastern European countries Romania and Poland could also cut air pollution-based deaths by 71.3% and 51.3%, respectively.

Germany foots a bill totalling $42.7bn in related health costs, while Poland and the UK have had to fork out $39.2bn and $30.7bn respectively. In 2013 alone, coal combustion is estimated to have generated health costs of between €6.1 and €11.8bn and caused 4,000 premature deaths.

HEAL suggests that the Bundesrepublik could better spend the $5.4bn it earmarked for fossil fuel subsidies in 2013/14 on over 300,000 solar installations, retaining 15,000 coal power plant workers in alternative employment for five years and the salaries of over 100,000 child caretaker salaries for a year.

Heidelberg University’s Professor Rainer Sauerborn said that for Germany, a country that advocates for the use of renewable energy, “phasing out fossil fuel subsidies should be a priority”.

In Poland, the study estimates that Warsaw could spend its $1.5bn in oil, gas and coal subsidies on 34 new hospitals, the salaries of 30,000 doctors and 57,000 teachers every year instead.

King’s College London’s Michal Krzyzanowski pointed out that air pollution health costs drain Polish GDP by 13% and called on the Polish government to start an energy transition towards cleaner energy sources.

The United Kingdom’s related health costs bill outweighs its energy subsidies pot by 500%. HEAL also suggests that London could pay the salaries of 48,000 nurses and 74,000 junior doctors every year, and install 300,000 solar installations for the same money.

NHS England’s Caroline Jessel said it is “ridiculous that we are still subsidising fossil fuels on a large scale”, adding that “it is even more absurd when we consider that now we have viable affordable alternatives”.

IEA claims that partially phasing out fossil fuels by 2020 would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 360 million tonnes, which equates to between 12 and 20% of the reduction needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

At a practical level, HEAL called on the G20 to cut fossil fuel subsidies by 2020 or by 2025 at the very latest for developing countries. The alliance also urged the EU’s financial institutions to lead the way for the G20 by shifting towards renewable energy sources.

Sam Morgan,

This article first appeared on, an edie content partner

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