Home Finance Air Pollution Is Responsible for Critical Global Health and Economic Problems

Air Pollution Is Responsible for Critical Global Health and Economic Problems

by internationalbanker

By Valerie Hernandez, International Banker


There is a seemingly unavoidable health threat that has long been hidden in plain sight, one alongside which we are resigned to having to coexist but to which our exposures endanger our physical and mental well-being. Indeed, as the cause and aggravation of serious conditions—including asthma, cancer, cardiovascular and pulmonary illnesses, and premature mortality—the ever-growing costs that air pollution inflicts on humanity and the global economy, estimated at $8 trillion, have become impossible to ignore.

In March, the air-quality technology company IQAir released its “World Air Quality Report for 2022”. The report provided a detailed assessment of the global air quality during the year, using PM2.5 air-quality data—that is, data concerning fine particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or less in diameter and considered a potentially carcinogenic air pollutant that is a palpable danger to people’s health—from 7,323 cities across 131 countries, regions and territories and aggregated from more than 30,000 regulatory air-quality monitoring stations and low-cost air-quality sensors typically operated by governmental bodies, research institutions, non-profit, non-governmental organisations, universities and educational facilities, private companies, and citizen scientists across the globe.

According to the report, air pollution continued to represent the world’s largest environmental health threat in 2022. “Worldwide, poor air quality accounts for 93 billion days lived with illness and over six million deaths each year. The total economic cost equates to over $8 trillion dollars, surpassing 6.1 percent of the global annual GDP,” the report’s astonishing findings revealed. It also detailed how air pollution disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable populations. “More than 90% of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries. Children under 18 years old, pregnant women, and older adults all have increased risk of developing or worsening health conditions from air pollution exposure.”

Indeed, from a look at the 10 most polluted countries in the world in terms of their 2022 average PM2.5 concentrations weighted by population—Chad, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Kuwait, India, Egypt and Tajikistan—it certainly appears that developing countries experience the worst of global air pollution. But truth be told, it is far from being a problem solely confined to the lower-income cohorts, as the report’s full list of 131 countries showed. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) also noted that “nearly every single individual” in Europe is affected by air pollution, with more than 90 percent of citizens exposed to annual levels of outdoor fine particulate matter that are above the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) air-quality guidelines.

Most commonly, populations are directly exposed to air pollution via inhalation, particularly in urban, industrialised regions rather than sparsely populated, rural communities. Pollutants are also deposited on local infrastructure, such as public buildings and housing, which ramps up the costs of maintenance and repairs. It should perhaps also come as no surprise that the fossil-fuel industry bears much responsibility as a particularly egregious source of worldwide air pollution, with thermal-power stations chief among the culprits.

A report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) released in February 2020, which the authors described as a “first-of-a-kind assessment of the global economic cost of air pollution from fossil fuels”, found that the economic cost totalled an estimated $2.9 trillion in 2018, or 3.3 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), which “far exceeded” the likely costs of rapid reductions in fossil-fuel use. “An estimated 4.5 million people died in 2018 due to exposure to air pollution from fossil fuels,” the report also found, with each death associated with an average loss of 19 years of life. “Fossil fuel PM2.5 pollution was responsible for 1.8 billion days of work absence, 4 million new cases of child asthma and 2 million preterm births, among other health impacts that affect healthcare costs, economic productivity and welfare.”

The UNECE also lists nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx), ozone and particulate matter—especially PM2.5—as being the most problematic pollutants from a health perspective, “as these tiny particles penetrate deep into the lungs, affecting both the respiratory and vascular systems”. Other significant pollutants include heavy metals, which, in addition to inhalation, can affect populations through the contamination of food and drink, while air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions also threaten biodiversity and breeding cycles in plants and animals.

Thailand provides just one of many examples in which air pollution has posed critical health and economic challenges in recent years, with the WHO estimating that more than 33,000 deaths in the Southeast Asian country in 2016 were caused by ambient air pollution. Five years later, a paper published by Dr. Witsanu Attavanich, an environmental economist and associate professor at Kasetsart University, calculated that the national social cost generated in 2019 by PM2.5 was 2.173 trillion baht, accounting for a mammoth 11 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product that year.

Bangkok leads the way among the country’s most polluted areas, with many of the capital city’s residents wearing masks and installing air purifiers in their homes to counter this insidious threat. Such measures can substantially raise household costs, and not everyone can afford them. Dr. Wirun Limsawart, director of the Society and Health Institute, Ministry of Public Health (MOPH), explained to the WHO in June 2022 the stark reality this problem poses to cities such as Bangkok. “Living in the same city of Bangkok are two children who live in the same neighbourhood. One of them lives in a house with air conditioners and purifiers. Their parents closely follow the news. Meanwhile, another child lives in a slum. Their parents know nothing about air pollution. So even though they breathe the same air, the latter will certainly die before the former. This is inequity.”

By April 2022, Thailand’s PM2.5 concentrations were four times higher than the WHO’s annual air-quality guideline value, while IQAir’s “World Air Quality Report for 2022” ranked Thailand 57th and Bangkok 52nd in the rankings for countries and capital cities, respectively, of average PM2.5 concentrations for the year. “The cost of air pollution is tremendous,” Dr. Attavanich said of his own report’s results, adding that Thailand’s stock of human capital would continue to diminish should air pollution remain unfettered to harm the health of future generations. “If the problem is not solved and continues in the future, the cost will accumulate every year. Is economic development worth having the health of the Thai population deteriorate?”

Indeed, solutions to overcome the global air-pollution problem are needed now more than ever. The IQAir report lists a number of measures that can be taken to alleviate pollution. At the governmental level, solutions include incorporating WHO air-quality guidelines into future air-quality standards; investing in renewable-energy projects; expanding the use of clean and renewable energy in public transportation; establishing incentive programmes to promote clean-air vehicles for personal and commercial use. The report also advocates for expanding the air-quality monitoring framework by increasing the coverage and accessibility of government-run air-quality monitoring stations and offering financial incentives to community-based organisations, university groups and individuals who install their own air-quality monitoring stations.

As for individuals, the report recommends advocating for local and national air-quality projects, including initiatives, propositions and measures that target air pollution; supporting organisations, community leaders and politicians who value air-quality improvement; and voicing air-quality concerns to local representatives. And in terms of limiting individual exposures to air pollution, one can cut back on outdoor activities and wear high-quality face masks when air quality is at unhealthy levels; monitor outdoor air quality using real-time reports and forecasted air-pollution levels; and use environmentally conscious alternatives to wood-burning stoves for heating and cooking.

But given that air pollution does not remain confined within the borders of a single country or region, greater intergovernmental coordination is becoming more pressing to address what is truly a global challenge. Toxic particulate emanating from one part of the world can end up consistently harming the population of an entirely different part of the world, as weather patterns and atmospheric dynamics ultimately dictate who ends up being the unfortunate recipients of the pollution.

“The EU’s added value is to make it a shared problem with shared ambitions and solutions, bringing Member States together as one group with a vision for the next generation,” the European Environment Agency (EEA) noted in September 2021. “The European Green Deal and zero-pollution ambition are an opportunity for change. Together with EEA reporting, they signal to all polluters what is happening and what is expected, but also what is possible with the right incentives (financial, technical, behavioural) in place.”

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