Air Pollution in Bangladesh

Fossil fuel pollution causes higher death despite lower use in Bangladesh

Emran Hossain | Published: 00:10, Feb 10,2021 | Updated: 21:22, Feb 10,2021


Bangladesh uses less fossil fuel than many countries but still has the second highest rate of mortality caused by air pollution from burning fossil fuel in the world.

As high as 36.5 per cent of the overall annual air pollution-related deaths are attributable to air pollution caused by burning fossil fuel such as gas, coal, petrol and diesel, said a new study released globally on Tuesday.

This high rate of deaths placed Bangladesh just after China which has 40 per cent of its overall air pollution-related mortality because of inhaling pollutants emitted from fossil fuel combustion, said the study jointly conducted by four international universities, including Harvard University.

The per capita fossil fuel consumption in Bangladesh, according to Our World in Data, a global online statistics provider, was only 6,303 MWh  in 2019 against 23,373 MWh in China.

‘The reason behind the high mortality rate in Bangladesh is a complete lack of regulation,’ said Professor Abdus Salam, who teaches chemistry at Dhaka University.  

He said that countries such as China put in place strict regulation to control fossil fuel pollution and significantly brought down the concentration of PM 2.5 in the air.

But Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, continues to have a very high level of PM 2.5 concentration in the air, he said.

Assessing meteorological data from 2012, the study found that the concentration of PM 2.5 in each cubic meter of air, due to fossil fuel burning, was 52.3 micrograms in Bangladesh in 2012, which was the second highest in the world in the year.

The overall concentration of PM 2.5 was 58.9 micrograms per cubic meter of air in the country, revealed the study, underscoring that fossil fuel combustion was mostly responsible for its polluted air.

In recent years, the overall air quality deteriorated further with the PM 2.5 concentration in each cubic meter of air hovering around 100 micrograms on average round the year while it drastically fell in other countries such as China.

China has already reached its target of bringing down the PM 2.5 concentration to 35 micrograms per cubic meter air in its many cities from as high as 800 micrograms, said experts.

But Bangladesh still does not have such a target to improve the air quality.

‘I am not sure if we have such a target but I can tell you that we are trying to curb air pollution,’ said environment, forest and climate change minister Md Shahab Uddin.

‘The death rate would have been higher if we had not controlled air pollution,’ he said.

The absence of any mechanism to curb air pollution is highlighted by the operation of old public buses running through the streets of the capital Dhaka with tails of black smoke.

Even the repeated intervention of the High Court failed to get the buses off the road.

‘Over half of the buses operating in Bangladesh are so old that you cannot run them using quality fuel,’ said Professor Kamruzzaman Majumder, chairman, department of environmental science, Stamford University.

Bangladesh imports substandard fuel to operate these buses that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, he said.

These buses are unable to burn fuel properly and generate smoke filled with black particulate matters leading to high level of pollution, he said.

According to a Department of Environment estimate, there are half a million buses operating in Dhaka alone with many of them running with old engines in violation of the Bangladesh standard. 

The new international study revealed that in India the concentration of PM 2.5 in each cubic meter of air is 42.9 micrograms due to the burning of fossil fuel. Fossil fuel pollution is responsible for 30.7 per cent of the overall air pollution-related deaths in India.

In India, the per capita fossil fuel consumption in 2012 was 6,303 MWh, much higher than in Bangladesh.

In terms of number of deaths caused by fossil fuel-related air pollution, Bangladesh is the third with 2,52,927 deaths annually.

In China 39 lakh people die every year because of the same reason while India registers 24 lakh fatalities due to the inhaling of particulate matters released into the air from multiple sectors using fossil fuel such as power, industry, ships, aircraft and ground transportation.

‘Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,’ a press release issued by Harvard University quoted Joel Schwartz, a co-author of the study, as saying.

Schwartz, who teaches environmental epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also said, ‘We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.’

The study showed the prevalence of fossil fuel pollution across Bangladesh by breaking the country into 60 grid boxes, with each box representing an area of 50km latitude by 67km longitude.

The grid-box distribution showed the highest concentration of fossil fuel-related air pollution deaths in Dhaka division, where fossil fuel combustion contributed to the premature deaths of 10,000 in each grid box.

Areas in western Bangladesh districts such as Chapai Nawabganj, Rajshahi, Chuadanga, Jhenidah and Jashore have also death rates similar to Dhaka.

Northern districts such as Kurigram and Netrakona have the cleanest air while fossil fuel has been shown to have caused widespread air pollution across Bangladesh.

‘The government is apparently reluctant to shift its dependence on fossil fuel for energy to renewable sources but it should not be the case,’ said energy expert Badrul Imam.

Fossil fuel pollution accounts for 18.9 per cent of the overall pollution-related deaths in Japan, 23.6 per cent in Vietnam, 30.5 per cent in South Korea, 16.9 per cent in Pakistan, 23.2 per cent in Nepal, 12.9 per cent in Sri Lanka and 18.6 per cent in Singapore.

The per capita fossil fuel consumption in Sri Lanka in 2019 was 4,015 MWh, Pakistan 3,972 MWh, Vietnam 10,057 MWh, Japan 35,757, and South Korea 58,323 MWh, according to Our World in Data. The regions with the highest concentration of fossil fuel-related air pollution are Eastern North America, Europe and South East Asia.

According to the study, globally fossil fuel combustion was responsible for 1.02 crore deaths in 2012, which were estimated to have come down to 87 lakh in 2018 after countries cut fossil fuel consumption, especially China.

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