There is no doubt that air pollution is a serious environmental risk affecting the health, well-being and life chances of hundreds of millions of men, women and children every day. But what is the economic cost of our inaction to address deteriorating air quality?
Air pollution (indoor and outdoor) was responsible for 5.5 million premature deaths globally in 2013. More than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) limits. It is often the poor and socially marginalized who tend to suffer disproportionately from the effects of deteriorating air quality due to living near sources of pollution
Air pollution also has an impact on crop yields, biodiversity and ecosystems. These all have economic consequences which affect economic growth and societal welfare, which will worsen if no action is taken to address poor air quality.
The OECD has estimated the economic cost of outdoor air pollution. In the absence of stringent measures air pollutants are expected to lead to higher concentrations of particulate matter (PM2.5) and ground level ozone (O3); further exacerbating the air pollution situation in those regions that already exceed WHO air quality guidelines.
According to the OECD, outdoor air pollution will impact labour productivity, health expenditures and agricultural crop yields amounting to 1% of global GDP by 2060.
In particular, the number of premature deaths are expected to increase from approximately 3 million (2010) to 6-9 million annually by 2060. It is densely populated regions with high concentrations of PM2.5 and O3 such as China and India, which will be most affected.
The annual global welfare costs associated with the premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are projected to increases from USD 300 billion (2015) to USD 2.2. trillion by 2060.
Conventional wisdom expects air pollution to increase as countries undergo economic development, but this is not the case for all countries and pollutants.
Since the 1990s, sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in Asia have declined, mostly due to a emission reductions in China.
China has decreased its emissions of SO2 from 23.8 million tons in 1995 to 20 million tons in 2000 due to a general reform of industry and power generation including a substantial decline in industrial high-sulphur coal use and an improvement in energy efficiency and economic growth.
However, the reduction of particular pollutants (e.g. NOx, PM and O3) has been slow in some countries due to an increase in the number of vehicles which offset the emission reductions achieved by improved vehicle technology.
Nevertheless, many countries have recognized air pollution as a key environment problem that needs to be addressed. Those cities which have been able to introduce emission control early in their development path (e.g. Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore) have avoided the extremely high levels of urban pollution that are often associated with other cities that have introduced emission control measures later.
The earlier integrated air quality managements systems are introduced, the lower the maximum pollution levels and lower the impact on human health and environment.
The evidence is clear, we need to act to protect human health, exploit climate co-benefits and ensure everyone can breathe clean air.