The lethal cost of fossil fuels: A human life for every thousand tonnes burned

In a world increasingly aware of the devastating impacts of fossil fuels, a startling statistic emerges: for every 1,000 tonnes of fossil carbon burned, one human life is prematurely lost.

Since May 2022, Australia’s Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has approved four new coal mines and expansions, totaling 156 million tonnes of potential lifetime emissions. Applying the ratio of the study The Human Cost of Anthropogenic Global Warming, these approvals could be linked to the premature deaths of 42,150 individuals.

This raises a crucial ethical question: should we hold our leaders accountable for the human costs tied to these fossil fuel ventures?

The Beetaloo gas fracking project alone, with a lifespan of 25 years and accounting for exported emissions, is estimated to produce between 0.8 to 3.2 billion tonnes of CO2. Assuming a conservative figure of 1 billion tonnes, the human cost translates to 270,000 lives. If emissions reach the higher end of estimates, the death toll could tragically triple.

Similarly, the Scarborough energy project is projected to release approximately 878 million tonnes of carbon over its lifetime. This equates to nearly 237,000 potential human fatalities, starkly contrasting the project’s assumed employment benefits of 600 new jobs.

These numbers are not merely hypothetical. A 2°C rise in global temperature, which is a realistic scenario given current trends, could lead to a billion premature deaths over the next century, according to a review by The Conversation. These deaths would stem from various climate breakdowns directly related to global warming.

It’s essential to consider the human cost of anthropogenic global warming. Every policy decision, every new project approval, and every tonne of fossil carbon burned has far-reaching implications, affecting lives across the globe.

We must combat our reliance on fossil fuels and rethink how we talk about these fossils — not only for the sake of environmental sustainability but for the preservation of life itself.

Image created by Mik Aidt using ChatGPT


Study: A person is killed every time humanity
burns 1,000 tonnes of fossil carbon

“How much fossil carbon must be burned to cause a future human death? Despite the inherent uncertainties, it is interesting to attempt a zeroth-order estimate, based on semi-quantitative considerations of the current state of global climate, the current global rate of emissions, and the complex, non-linear relationships among the amount of carbon burned, corresponding changes in GMST, current mortality in connection with poverty, and future death tolls.”

Regarding the conversion of burned fossil carbon to CO2, the chemical reality is that when carbon burns, it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. The molecular weight of CO2 is higher than that of pure carbon because of the added oxygen atoms. Therefore, burning 1,000 tonnes of carbon results in the emission of approximately 3,700 tonnes of CO2.

If burning 1012 tonnes of fossil carbon causes the premature deaths of 109 future people, one future person is killed every time a 1,000 tonnes of carbon are burned. This OME is consistent with Nolt’s (2011a) finding that the average American produces 1,840 tonnes CO2 equivalent (from burning 500 tonnes of carbon) during her or his lifetime, which then causes the suffering or death of one or two future people.

If it takes 1,000 tonnes of carbon (or 3,700 tonnes of CO2) to kill a future person, and Nolt’s calculation is correct, the average American is killing half of a future person.

As we discuss the consequences of the decisions our political leaders are making, and as we begin to form a new narrative about the fossil fuel-driven destruction of our planet, it could be worth mentioning this study and then do the death maths. For instance:

Plibersek’s four approved coal mines
Here’s how we reached the figure of 42,150 people killed by the actions of Tanya Plibersek:

1,000 tonnes of burned fossil carbon = 3,700 tonnes of CO2 = 1 dead person

1,000,000 tonnes of fossil carbon = 3,700,000 tonnes of CO2 = 1,000 dead persons

42,150,000 tonnes of carbon = 156,000,000 tonnes of CO2 = 42,150 dead persons

The Beetaloo gas project
Cumulatively, over the 25-years life of the project and including exported emissions, the Beetaloo gas fracking project will generate between 0.8 to 3.2 billion tonnes of CO2. For now, let’s just assume the number for Beetaloo would become 1 billion tonnes. Then the death maths would look like this:

1,000 tonnes of burned fossil carbon = 3,700 tonnes of CO2 = 1 dead person

1,000,000 tonnes of fossil carbon = 3,700,000 tonnes of CO2 = 1,000 dead persons

270,000,000 tonnes of fossil carbon = 1,000,000,000 tonnes of CO2 = 270,000 dead persons

The Scarborough energy project
Woodside expects to process about five to eight million tonnes of gas per year from it, which could result in the release of an estimated 878 million tonnes of CO2 emisisons across the project’s lifetime.

237,300,000 tonnes of burned fossil carbon = 878,000,000 tonnes of CO2 = 237,000 dead persons

Three Norwegian oil and gas fields
In December 2023, Greenpeace and Nature & Youth took the Norwegian government to court for opening new oil fields in the midst of the climate crisis. The court ruled in Greenpeace’s favour on all points of the case: The three oil and gas fields Breidablikk, Tyrving and Yggdrasil have been declared illegal, the development of the oil fields must stop immediately – and new oil production cannot not be started. The three oil fields would together have created around 463 million tonnes of CO2. That’s more than all of Norway emits in nine years – a massive amount of CO2 which is now to be kept safely underground. The death maths are simple: Greenpeace and Nature & Youth have in this way helped save 125,000 lives.

463,000,000 tonnes of CO2 = 125,000 dead persons


Return-flight from Melbourne to London
A 555-seat double deck Airbus A380 aircraft emits approximately 1,200 tonnes of CO2 on a round trip from Melbourne to London and back, a distance of 33,800 kilometers. That’s close to the amount of emissions that lead to the loss of a third of one human life. In other words, doing the death maths, collectively the 555 passengers from Melbourne would be accountable for the death of one person somewhere else in the world after they have done three flights to London and back.

3,700 tonnes of CO2 = 1 dead person

“A 2°C temperature rise equates to a billion prematurely dead people over the next century, killed as a result of a wide range of global warming related climate breakdowns. These findings were derived from a review of the climate literature that attempted to quantify future human deaths from a long list of mechanisms.”

Sources

→ The Conversation – 30 November 2023:
How 7 policies could help save a billion lives by 2100

→ Frontiers Sec. Environmental Psychology – 16 October 2019:
The Human Cost of Anthropogenic Global Warming: Semi-Quantitative Prediction and the 1,000-T

→ Yale Climate Connections – 17 April 2024:
Climate change played a role in killing tens of thousands of people in 2023
“And that’s an extremely conservative estimate. The World Health Organization expects the globe will see 250,000 deaths annually as a result of climate change by 2030, an estimate it says is conservative.”

→ The Guardian – 28 May 2024:
Majority of US voters support climate litigation against big oil, poll shows
“And almost half of respondents back the filing of criminal charges against oil companies that have contributed to the climate crisis.”

Cartoon by Dave Pope: on carbon offsets

“Leadership failure is increasingly killing people, destroying livelihoods and imposing a massive cost on the economy as extreme climate impacts escalate globally. But our leaders could not give a damn, obsessed as they are with self-interest, wedge politics and expanding the fossil fuel industry, irrespective of the implications. That arrogance and complacency is about to be shattered as global warming accelerates.”
~ Ian Dunlop

Climate change will bring more death than we are used to seeing

We will get used to it.

By Matt Orsagh – 9 May 2024

Photo by Abhishek Singh on Unsplash

The World Economic Forum Report: Quantifying the Impact of Climate Change on Human Health (2024) tries to quantify the impact of climate change on mortality. They estimate that by 2050, humanity will experience 14.5 million excess deaths due to climate change events. This only covers floods, wildfires, sea level rise, tropical storms, and heatwaves. This does not cover any secondary impacts of climate change due to famine, conflicts resulting from climate change, increased morbidity due to an increased outbreak of climate-related diseases, or other climate-related causes of death.

The authors note that developing countries will be disproportionately affected due to their dense populations living in low-lying coastal zones and large swaths of geography in these areas that have hot and dry climates. The quality of medical care people receive in developing countries will also play a role.

The report only looks at climate change as a cause of increased mortality and does not delve into the impacts of other planetary boundaries that we have crossed, or likely will cross by 2050. For example, the planetary boundary of ocean acidification has not been breached yet, but if it is breached, it would have devastating effects on life in the world’s oceans. This would in turn have devastating effects on people.

The excess deaths from the breaching of all planetary boundaries by 2050 are likely much higher than the 14.5 discussed in the WEF report. I couldn’t find such a number anywhere, so if you see one, let me know and I’ll update this.

Source: World Economic Forum

The report does show that 2.0 billion people will have their health negatively impacted by climate change by 2050. Most notably, droughts will impact the health of about 1.1 billion people by 2050, about 1/8 of today’s population. The report states that climate-induced impacts will account for a further $1.1 trillion in extra costs to healthcare systems, creating a significant additional burden on already strained infrastructures and medical and human resources.

This has all happened before.

To put these numbers in a bit of perspective, here is a chart showing some of the mass mortality events in human history.

Source: FastCompany

The Black Death of the 14th century reduced the world population from about 475 million to about 350 – 375 million. In parts of Europe, it took 80 – 150 years for populations to recover. The best analogs for climate change may be the World Wars of last century. We will likely see tens of millions of unnecessary deaths due to environmental degradation and extreme weather, with climate change being the most noteworthy, but by no means the only environmental reason behind these deaths. Those numbers are just up to 2050. i

Estimates range a great deal as to what impact climate change will have on the world’s population. Here are some of the highlights/lowlights.

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report projects that the world population could be between 8.5 billion and 11 billion people by 2050.

One of the most apocalyptic predictions came in 2009 from, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He stated that if global warming reached 4C the human population would likely be reduced to about 1 billion. On a “happy” note, we are now well below projections of a 4C rise in temperatures. We currently sit at about 2.7C expected degrees of warming.  

What is the carrying capacity of Earth?

The carrying capacity of Earth depends on our use of the planet’s resources. The more we use, the lower the carrying capacity. The less we use, the higher the carrying capacity. We can start with the Dasgupta Review – The Economics of Biodiversity, which states we are currently using Earth’s resources as though we had 1.6 Earths to use. To figure this out we divide Earth’s current population, about 8 billion by 1.6 and we get about 5 billion. So, Earth’s carrying capacity according to our current resource use is about 5 billion people.

We could also use Earth Overshoot Day, which this year is May 27th. I’m going to cheat a little and just say it is the end of May. I can solve for 8 billion * 5/12, which gets us to about 3.33 billion people as Earth’s current carrying capacity. Yikes!

If you split the difference between these two rough estimates, you get a number a little North of 4 billion, which is about half of the population of Earth now.

We are way on the dangerous side of overshoot, so you better believe a correction is coming. Degrowth is the answer to getting us off that trajectory and lowering the strain on the planet. This would allow for a somewhat smoother population correction.

I am not rooting for or advocating for population reduction. I am telling you that this is coming because I believe in physics and the wisdom behind the simple phrase; “If something is not sustainable, it will end.”

Mother Nature is going to take corrective action.

An even broader perspective.

Of course, much greater levels of death have happened before on Earth. We are now in the midst of the 6th mass extinction in the Earth’s history. It is just a matter of how much ends up becoming extinct. Probably not us, but we will be responsible for it. The history of mass extinctions throughout Earth’s history doesn’t paint a pretty picture. We are the first species to recognize we are in the middle of a mass extinction. That hasn’t stopped us from causing it, and we don’t look like we have any plans to stop it.

Source: (The Conversation/CC BY-ND 4.0)

Once a mass extinction gets started, it is hard to put on the brakes. We have a long way to go. (That is not a statement meant to comfort, but one meant to show that we are early in this mass extinction).

Read more in Degrowth is the Answer on substack.com