Air pollution is a global health crisis: We know how to solve

07Nov 2018
Correpondent
The Guardian
Air pollution is a global health crisis: We know how to solve

Air pollution is one of the biggest public health crises we face today. An astonishing 95 percent of the world breathes unsafe air. And the consequences of that range from shortened life expectancy, to impaired brain functions, to health impacts on unborn babies, to depression.

This week the World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting in Geneva for its first conference on the global air pollution health crisis. Medical professionals, health ministers and researchers will convene for three days to talk through the problems. What people across the world are demanding most, however, are bold solutions to this crisis.

The benefits of fixing this problem cannot be overstated. People in China and India could see an average of up to four years added to their lives if their air quality were to meet WHO standards. In Europe too, Poles could see an average of one year and four months added to their lives if the smog which rolls across Europe were to be cleaned up.

Of all the crises humanity faces, there are a few things about air pollution that are unique.

Firstly, there is very little about this crisis which is unknown or mysterious. We know the sources all too well. The global arch-polluter coal is one major source. Coal power plants were the source of 23,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2013 and up to 100,000 in India from 2011 to 2012.

Meanwhile, urban centres across the world choke on the emissions of gas-guzzling transport, particularly diesel vehicles. In German cities, for example, about two-thirds of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions come from road transport.

Just today, a ground-breaking Greenpeace analysis of satellite data on NO2 air pollution yet again indicated the same two culprits - coal burning and transport. Under the satellite's gaze, they have no place to hide.

We also know the solutions. There is a plush palette of options open to policy makers to paint us a far prettier world - tried and proven policy initiatives, strict emissions standards, the switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy, and the move away from fossil fuel-burning transportation. Many of these options are also increasingly cost-effective.

Take renewable energy, for example. It literally saves lives. In the U.S. alone, the expansion of wind and solar energy, and the resulting avoided emissions from fossil fuels, has helped prevent up to 12,700 premature deaths from 2007 to 2015.

COMMUNITIES MOBILISE

Meanwhile in Asia, China is forging a path ahead in terms of clean air policy initiatives. Strict heavy industry output caps and emissions standards, as well as a slow but steady move away from coal power over the last few years, has seen a gradual decline in air pollution across the country's smog-plagued north. Though, for sure, the quest for healthy air for the hundreds of millions in that region is still far from over.

What's more, the economic savings governments could make by switching their energy and transport systems away from fossil fuels are huge. According to one estimate, the EU could save up to 62.3 billion euros in health costs if it scrapped coal power. Recent research also shows China could save up to $38 billion per year by cleaning the skies.

Secondly, across the world, air pollution has proven to be a powerful galvaniser for citizen action. From villagers in Bali opposing the expansion of a coal-fired power plant, to residents of Delhi, Jakarta and Beijing making their voices heard, to the citizen scientists who have set up 20,000 air pollution monitoring stations around Belgium, communities across the world are mobilising for clean air.

The demand is there. The means are at governments' disposal. Many solutions are beginning to be implemented. But the scale of the crisis and the rewards of fixing it demand that we be bold and that we radically accelerate action on air pollution.

The WHO needs to send this message to governments across the world, loud and clear.