One side-effect of capitalism caused millions of premature deaths, study reveals

Greenwashing won't save us now.

Originally Published: 
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

As leaders began opening talks on Monday at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), President Joe Biden took to the stage to deliver his opening remarks.

“We’re still falling short,” Biden said. “There is no more time to hang back or sit on the fence or argue amongst ourselves. This is a challenge of our collective lifetime.”

He also said: “When I talk to Americans about climate change, I tell them it’s about jobs.”

While Biden called for urgent, sweeping action to address the climate crisis — both in the United States and abroad — his opening statement also implied action on the climate crisis need not come at the expense of consumer spending, which drives the country’s economy.

G20 leaders toss a coin into Rome’s Trevi fountain. The summit is a meeting between the leaders of the world’s largest economies.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

But a new study seriously calls into question our ability to minimize harm to not just the planet, but our own bodies, while maintaining our current levels of consumerism.

The paper, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, concludes that air pollution — driven by consumerism within mostly developed G20 nations — directly leads to nearly two million premature deaths each year, including thousands of infants.

These grim findings coincide with the recent G20 summit in Rome, Italy and the ongoing COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Researchers hope their findings will prompt world leaders to act immediately to reduce the death toll of air pollution and save human lives, writing “it would be beneficial if the G20 nations could work together with nations outside the G20 to reduce premature deaths due to PM2.5.”

What is PM2.5?

One of the most alarming forms of air pollution is a fine particulate matter known as PM2.5.

Some scientists describe it as the greatest environmental risk factor for human mortality. Breathing in PM2.5 is strongly associated with often fatal diseases such as lung cancer, heart attack, and stroke. These tiny particles have a width about 30 times smaller than a strand of human hair.

Pollution from PM2.5 particles damages not only city skylines with smog, but also causes serious lung and heart disease, resulting in premature death.


Gas-guzzling vehicles, which emit fossil fuels directly into the air, are a common “primary” source of PM2.5. A common “secondary” source of PM2.5 are power plants, which release gases into the atmosphere that transform into PM2.5 through chemical reactions.

Why this study matters — Most studies on PM 2.5 air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and human health have focused on the influence of the production of goods as opposed to the consumption of these products. This kind of analysis often skews blame toward nations with high-production output, such as India and China, while letting wealthier developed nations off the hook.

But our consumerism — our demand for goods — also drives production, resulting in air pollution. This study is the first to directly examine the relationship between consumerism, PM2.5 air pollution, and human mortality.

“This lack of scientific knowledge risks delaying international collaborative efforts to safeguard the victims of the PM2.5 pollution,” the researchers write.

How the discovery was made — The G20, or Group of Twenty, is comprised of 19 nations and the European Union. It represents the world’s largest economies.

These leaders meet annually to discuss economic and other critical issues, including the climate crisis. The group recently convened for their 2021 gathering in Rome ahead of the COP26 climate conference.

The researchers created a four-part plan to conduct their unprecedented analysis of G20 nations and air pollution deaths.

  1. The researchers generated a map of “footprint” emissions resulting from the consumption of goods by G20 nations, which they then compared to a map of emissions resulting from the production of goods.
  2. The scientists then calculated concentrations of PM2.5 resulting from each map.
  3. Afterward, researchers analyzed the link between PM2.5 health impacts and G20 consumerism across 199 countries
  4. Considering average life expectancy, the scientists were then able to conclude just how many premature air pollution deaths resulted from the lifelong consumption of an average individual in a G20 nation. They broke their results down further on a country-by-country basis.

A figure from the study reveals how consumerism in G20 nations influences premature child deaths in other nations.

Nansai et al

What they discovered — The researchers ultimately found an alarming trend linking consumerism and premature deaths.

Here are six of the most important findings:

  1. In the year 2010, consumerism in the G20 nations led to 1.98 million premature deaths. Air pollution results in 4 million deaths annually. The study suggests 50 percent of air pollution deaths are a direct result of consumerism in G20 countries.
  2. Seniors and young people are particularly vulnerable: The study suggests 78,000 premature infant deaths resulted from G20 consumption, though researchers believe the true number could be even higher.
  3. Taken together, the lifelong consumption of 28 individuals in the G20 leads to the premature death of one person.
  4. The five nations associated with the highest premature deaths are: China (905,000), India (493,000), the US (139,000), Russia (74,600), and Indonesia (52,700).
  5. Consumption in 11 G20 countries resulted in significant (greater than 50 percent) foreign deaths from individuals in other countries versus the deaths of their own citizens. Nations with very high percentages of foreign deaths include the US (62 percent), Canada (85 percent), and Saudi Arabia (96 percent).
  6. US consumption was associated with the deaths of 52,900 Americans, but it also takes a heavy toll on China (38,700 deaths), India (12,900 deaths) and Mexico (3,900 deaths), and non-G20 nations like Bangladesh (2,100 deaths).

The big takeaway — The study’s message is clear: Consumerism across largely wealthy G20 nations enacts a high death toll, often on poorer, developing nations, due to the relationship between air pollution and the consumption of goods.

The study authors also say the premature air pollution deaths from G20 consumerism surpass the death toll resulting from production for manufacturing in G20 countries.

Greenwashing, or the practice of making business practices appear more sustainable than they are, has gone hand-in-hand with an increasing focus on ethical consumerism at the individual level.

This study suggests that until we address the larger impacts of wealthy nations’ consumerist habits on an international level, millions of people will continue to prematurely die from air pollution-related diseases like lung cancer and heart disease.

Consumption in wealthier G20 nations is resulting in millions of premature deaths — and scientists are urging world leaders to act now to save lives.


What’s next — The researchers’ findings provide an urgent obligation for G20 nations “to address their PM2.5 footprint as an international issue.”

The researchers hoped the G20 summit might provide a forum to discuss the matter, but climate discussions at the recent G20 summit in Rome have fallen short of expectations.

That leaves the UN’s climate conference, COP26, as the next opportunity for world leaders to decide to act on this study’s findings and protect lives.

With so many human lives at stake, the scientists stress that G20 nations must take “joint action as soon as possible to reduce the number of premature deaths due to its consumption.”

The alternative — inaction and maintaining the status quo — is unthinkable.

Abstract: Worldwide exposure to ambient PM2.5 causes over 4 million premature deaths annually. As most of these deaths are in developing countries, without internationally coordinated efforts this polarized situation will continue. As yet, however, no studies have quantified nation-to-nation consumer responsibility for global mortality due to both primary and secondary PM2.5particles. Here we quantify the global footprint of PM2.5-driven premature deaths for the 19G20 nations in a position to lead such efforts. G20 consumption in 2010 was responsible for1.983 [95% Confidence Interval: 1.685–2.285] million premature deaths, at an average age of67, including 78.6 [71.5–84.8] thousand infant deaths, implying that the G20 lifetime consumption of about 28 [24–33] people claims one life. Our results indicate that G20 nations should take responsibility for their footprint rather than focusing solely on transboundary air pollution, as this would expand opportunities for reducing PM2.5-driven premature mortality. Given the infant mortality footprint identified, it would moreover contribute to ensuring infant lives are not unfairly left behind in countries like South Africa, which have a weak relationship with G20 nations.

This article was originally published on

Related Tags