Too costly to ignore
The statistics are grim. Air pollution caused more than seven million premature deaths — one in eight globally — in 2012, compared to nearly six million premature deaths from tobacco.
The combustion of diesel and coal are among the main causes of air pollution, with 3.7 million deaths attributed to outdoor fumes and 4.3 million resulting from poorly ventilated homes. Motorized transport now accounts for half of premature deaths from ambient particulate matter in the 34 OECD countries. Coal-fired power is also the main source of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, which causes about 150,000 premature deaths annually and threatens pervasive risks this century and beyond. To be sure, the coal industry has helped billions of people escape poverty, not least in China, where coal-fired power has underpinned the nearly 700 percent growth in per capita income since 1990. But human health is at greater risk in countries that burn more coal. Research for the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate last year calculated that particulate matter alone caused 1.23 million premature deaths in China — the world’s top coal-consuming economy — in 2010.
The WHO recently carried out a review of the evidence on the health effects of air pollution, and found that the range of such effects is broader and occur at lower concentrations than previously thought. In addition to the well-known effects of air pollution on the lungs and heart, new evidence points to its detrimental impact on children’s development, including in utero. Some studies even link air pollution to diabetes, a major chronic disease and health challenge in Indonesia, China, and western countries.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of health risks, many countries routinely ignore air-quality standards — as well as the emissions monitoring needed for effective regional cooperation — mainly owing to governments’ fear of their economic impact. Economic models used by advisers to shape development strategy – and touted by lobbyists to influence decisions on major infrastructure projects —exclude the human cost of air pollution and the long-term benefits of measures to reduce it.
Any solutions to the problems posed by air pollution will require not only new economic models, but also integrated measures by local, national and international governments. Cutting emissions from urban transport, for example, will involve city mayors, local planners, and national policymakers working together to induce compact development. Fortunately, government support for effective action is growing. Air pollution is at the top of China’s domestic agenda, following the choking smog dubbed “airpocalypse” that engulfed its major cities in January 2013 and Chai Jing’s recent documentary “Under the Dome,” which exposed the catastrophic health impacts of air pollution. Indeed, China’s government has closed some of the country’s dirtiest power plants, resulting in a drop in coal consumption last year for the first time since 1998.
A recent draft resolution on air pollution and health for the World Health Assembly (the WHO’s governing body) suggests that countries should “underscore” a link between air pollution and climate change. Countries should adopt the WHO air-quality guidelines and highlight additional opportunities for greener urban planning, cleaner energy, more efficient buildings and safer walking and cycling. A formal acknowledgement by governments of the immediate health-related benefits of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions can tip the scales toward greater progress on climate change, air pollution, and human health simultaneously. Policymakers everywhere should recognize the economic opportunities that such an outcome promises to deliver.
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