Air pollution causing 65,000 annual deaths in Middle East, report finds

Greenpeace researchers suggest shift to renewable energies as fossil fuels cause 4.5 million deaths worldwide each year

FILE - In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. The Trump administration on Friday targeted an Obama-era regulation credited with helping dramatically reduce toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, saying the benefits to human health and the environment may not be worth the cost of the regulation. The 2011 Obama administration rule, called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion clean-up of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)
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Tens of thousands of people are dying in the Middle East and North Africa each year due to pollution from burning fossil fuels, a new report has revealed.

The study by Greenpeace estimated there are 4.5 million annual premature deaths worldwide because of pollutants released by high-emission power stations and vehicle exhausts. Of these, 65,000 deaths occur in the Middle East each year due to pollution.

Air pollution increases the incidence of chronic and acute illnesses and contributes to millions of hospital visits and billions of work absences globally due to illness each year.

“Most of the Middle Eastern countries, their power sector or transport sector is relying on fossil-fuel usage – mainly oil and gas, and diesel,” said Julien Jreissati, programme manager for Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa.

“The Gulf region has one of the highest [amounts] of solar energy in the world. They need to invest more and more in the solutions.”

In the UAE what's most striking is they're an oil producer and yet they're investing heavily in solar energy

The new report, entitled Toxic Air: The Price of Fossil Fuels, showed that, while Egypt has the highest total deaths caused by pollution per year (32,000 compared to Lebanon's 2,700), Lebanon has the highest death rate per 1,000 people (0.39 compared to Egypt's 0.33).

Greenpeace has previously researched pollution in the Middle East region.

A study carried out by the organisation based on data collected in 2018 named Dubai as the most polluted city in the Gulf and the 10th most polluted worldwide for nitrogen oxides. Since then, the emirate has introduced numerous initiatives to improve air quality including proposals for flexible working hours to stagger or reduce traffic. Dubai has also signed up to the C40 Clean Air Cities Declaration, which aims to reduce use of vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

Other cities that Greenpeace researchers said were among the most polluted include Al Ahmadi in Kuwait, Baghdad in Iraq, Doha in Qatar, and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

In calculating their fatality figures, as well as the economic costs attributable to fossil fuel use, Greenpeace only considered human-generated pollution – mostly from burning coal, oil and gas.

Julien Jreissati, programme manager for Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa. Courtesy: Greenpeace

Natural sources of pollution, such as dust storms, were not factored in by the researchers. All forms of air pollution, however, have been linked to a variety of respiratory tract infections, including asthma, lung cancer and heart disease.

As well as urging governments to invest more in cleaner energy for power generation, the report also called for improved modes of transport.

“One of the most important ways that governments can catalyse sustainable transport is to set a phase-out date for diesel, gas, and petrol cars, and to introduce comprehensible and affordable public transport, with safe walking and cycling infrastructure,” the report said.

The highest number of deaths caused by pollution in the Middle East and North Africa per year. Ramon Peñas / The National

“We need to move away from private cars as the primary mode of transport, and initiatives like car-free days allow us to imagine what our cities would look like without traffic and pollution.”

The research also highlighted areas in which the UAE had made substantial progress in recent years.

“In the UAE what’s most striking is they’re an oil producer and yet they’re investing heavily in solar energy,” said Mr Jreissati.

“They are bringing in huge solar power plants. They can set a precedent for other countries in the region to follow.”

Last year, commercial operations began at the 1.2 GW Noor Abu Dhabi solar power plant in the Emirates.

Work is also continuing to develop the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming Al Dhafra plant in Abu Dhabi, with an eventual 2GW capacity, will be the largest single-site solar power plant in the world.

Asher Minns, executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom, said countries should replace oil-fired power plants with gas-fired facilities or, preferably, renewable energy.

He said China's investments in renewables offered an example that other countries could follow.

“Although China has got lots of coal-fired [power plants] and is using more coal, they’ve got a very rapid rise in renewables – wind and solar,” he said.

“Ideally countries would be able to leapfrog gas and go for renewables for electricity generation.”

Other measures that governments in the region could consider include fitting desulphurisation units to power plants to reduce emissions, according to William Bloss, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He cited China as an example of a developing country where this has happened, while India has promoted the use of low-sulphur vehicle fuel.

“This is important because sulphur is one of the key ingredients of fine particles that are found in the air,” he said.

“Economic growth brings a whole host of benefits in people’s lifestyles and health, but air pollution is one of the most significant [causes of] non-communicable diseases affecting people worldwide.”