Your city could be exporting deadly air pollution – here’s why

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Air pollution is often seen as a local problem requiring local and regional solutions. Karachi, London, Lagos, Mexico City and Paris are just a few of the world’s cities grappling with poor air quality. With city-dwellers increasingly being asked to ditch the car – especially if it’s diesel – and use greener modes of transport, it’s easy to forget that air is also mobile. As a result, there’s very little attention being paid to the impact of cross-border air pollution on human health and well-being.

300 million children are currently breathing in toxic air

Globally, air pollution caused by microscopic fine particles (PM₂.₅) kills 3.5m people each year. These particles can easily enter the respiratory tract. They rank fifth worldwide among all risks to health after high blood pressure, smoking and diet. Breathing filthy air can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and affect mental health. And it is the vulnerable in society who suffer the most, with 300m children currently breathing in toxic air. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, together with second-hand smoke, causes 570,000 deaths in children under five years of age each year, due to respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

The movement of air pollutants from transport and agricultural activities in one country can affect the air quality in another. Such as the smoke from Indonesian forest fires which has caused a toxic haze to descend over parts of Malaysia and Singapore. Another example is the atmospheric brown cloud – a transnational air pollution phenomenon which contains aerosols such as soot and dust that poses risks to human health and food security, especially in Asia.

Exporting emissions

Cross-border air pollution has been an issue for some time: in the 1970-80s, the UK was nicknamed the “dirty man of Europe” for belching out industrial sulphur emissions, which contributed to acid rain in Europe – a reputation that the Greens fear will be regained after Brexit.

But it’s only recently that the scale of the air pollution effects of international trade has been assessed, with one study suggesting that around 400,000 premature deaths occurred in 2007 in a different region of the world than the one in which the air pollutants were emitted.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 22% (762,400) of air pollution-related deaths worldwide. In particular, Chinese particle emissions were responsible for 64,800 premature deaths in other regions, including over 3,000 deaths in Western Europe and the US. By contrast, Chinese products bought in Western Europe and the US are linked to over 100,000 deaths in China in one year.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 762,400 of air pollution-related deaths worldwide.

International trade has seen many developed countries transferring their manufacturing abroad, in order to take advantage of cheap labour and lax environmental standards in often less wealthy nations. As a result, air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, has effectively been exported to developing countries.

Making the switch

So, while murky grey images of smog smothered Beijing or New Delhi may prompt others to ask why they don’t clean up their act, it’s important to remember that these cities are shouldering an enormous manufacturing burden, as much of the world’s goods and services are outsourced to China and India.

There is now a need for governments to switch from calculating greenhouse gas emissions based on production to one based on consumption of goods and services. This has important implications for global climate and air mitigation policies because as much as 20% to 25% of overall carbon dioxide emissions come from the production of goods and services which are traded internationally.

Although there has been success in achieving better air quality over the past the six decades, this doesn’t erase the need to face up to big global environment challenges. Cities are responsible for around 70% of global greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long term, short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon (a primary part of particulate matter), methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near-term. Local action, such as banning diesel cars, addresses both air and climate pollutants. This can achieve immediate effects by reducing near-term warming and improving air quality levels.

There’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere.

There are several international conventions to regulate air pollution and related issues. But for now, there’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere. This has led to calls for a new Law of the Atmosphere to provide effective cooperation on air pollution and climate change at regional and global scales. As it stands, the likelihood of such a law gaining support is low, given the climate change scepticism exhibited by powerful world leaders such as presidents Trump and Putin.

Everyone has the right to clean air. But air pollution requires no visas, and its devastating impact can be felt far from the source. No longer can the leaders of developed nations shy away from the fact that their citizens’ consumption and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on people in others part of the world. As consumers, we have the power and the responsibility to demand better environmental and social standards – so we can all breathe life, wherever we live.

This article was first published at The Conversation

Time for Greens to Return to the Grassroots

The past five decades have seen groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) successfully campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues.

The green movement has promoted a way of speaking and thinking about the environment that was not possible or imaginable decades ago.

Today green issues are a feature of the modern world that that everyone now recognises. As the green movement reaches middle age, it is coming under increasing criticism for being bureaucratic, ineffective, out of touch and set in its ways.

THE past five decades have seen groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) successfully campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues.

The green movement has promoted a way of speaking and thinking about the environment that was not possible or imaginable decades ago.

Today green issues are a feature of the modern world that that everyone now recognises. As the green movement reaches middle age, it is coming under increasing criticism for being bureaucratic, ineffective, out of touch and set in its ways.

Environmental concern initially focused on the protection of selected species and habitats, reducing polluting emissions to air, water and soil and improving the control and management of waste and hazardous substances.

As society became increasingly globalised, industrialised and interconnected, environmental issues changed in their complexity and geographical scope.

With the recognition of acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and climate change as environmental problems, the focus moved from the local to the regional and global scale.

Efforts are now being made to control greenhouse gases and specific pollutants from sectors such as energy and transport. This has involved improving the efficiency of resource use and adopting cleaner technology.

While progress has been made in improving the state of the environment, human activity continues to drive environmental problems such as climate change, deforestation, depletion of natural resources and loss of biodiversity.

Despite many achievements the green movement has failed to win the hearts and minds of a large part of the electorate. The urgency of reducing greenhouse gases, the slow progress made in achieving a binding international climate change agreement, the style of campaigning and the rise in climate scepticism have caused fractions within the green movement.

Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth, accused the movement of betraying the public by not supporting the grassroots campaign to stop the sell-off of England’s forests.

Porritt claimed the green movement was either too concerned about its relationship with the Department of the Environment to criticise the sell-off or that they hoped to gain from it.

More recently, the movement has been criticised for its opposition to the role of technology in addressing environmental issues such as nuclear power and genetically modified (GM) crops.

US environmentalist Stewart Brand believes the failure to embrace technologies has hindered environmental and social progress. He suggests we will be saved from global warming by densely populated cities, nuclear energy, GM food and planet-wide geo-engineering to manipulate the Earth’s climate to counteract climate change.

Mark Lynas accuses the green movement of having helped cause climate change through their opposition to nuclear power.

In contrast, Porritt warns of the dangers of being seduced by nuclear and argues that a 100 per cent renewable supply strategy for the UK is feasible by 2050, assuming that total UK energy consumption can be reduced by at least 40 per cent by 2030. This could be achieved by massive investment in energy efficiency.

As the world enters a new age of natural resource scarcity and climate change, food and energy insecurity will the affect the way of life of many communities. Therefore a renewed green movement will be required for a new age of global challenges. This will require agreement on the different technologies it supports.

There has been a tendency for green groups to scare people into change. There is now recognition of the need to provide a positive agenda.

A greater focus on “green localism” could re-engage an often suspicious and uninterested public by taking action within their immediate sphere of influence. Working in partnership with local authorities and businesses, local groups could contribute to build stronger communities able to fight climate change, improve health and wellbeing and secure a healthy natural environment.

The green movement has the potential to evolve through a network of grassroots groups that contribute to national and international campaigns using social media. It remains to be seen how the environmental idea can be captured and shaped by new generations in an age of new challenges. What is certain we will have to develop ways to respond to the effects future environmental change will have on our current way of life.

This article is based on the book Environmentalism Since 1945 by Gary Haq and Alistair Paul, published by Routledge in September 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011

Our Green History

oday environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Today environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Over the last 60 years these have evolved with each new environmental cause from nuclear power and pesticide use in the 1960s, to acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s and biodiversity loss and climate change in the 1990s and 2000s. Often these causes have taken hold in different countries at different times, each prompted by particular historical circumstances. For this reason environmentalism has been taken up in many forms across generations and the continents of the world.

The explosion of environmental activity in the 1960s did not represent the creation of an entirely new set of ideas. In 1885 German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote: “It would never occur to me to regard the enjoyment of nature as the invention of the modern age.” The same can be said for modern day interest in the environment.

The fact that modern environmental concern spread following atomic bomb tests and to the backdrop of the Vietnam War is a point much referred to by historians and environmentalists. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) was amongst the first to link the dangers of the atomic bomb to the misuse of pesticides, emphasising humanity’s capacity to destroy nature and itself.

Over the next ten years a number of publications followed suit, Tragedy of the Commons (1968), and Limits to Growth (1972), raised wider anxieties about the future of the planet, whilst Blueprint for Survival (1972), and Small is Beautiful (1973) sketched out green alternatives. Almost half a century later the anxieties expressed in each of these books are still at the centre of many environmental concerns today.

Media coverage of dramatic pollution events has been instrumental in raising environmental concerns over the last half century.The first major oil spill in Britain occurred when the super tanker Torrey Canyon struck a reef between the UK mainland and the Isles of Scilly in March 1967.

The resulting oil slick covered 120 miles of Cornish coast, killing tens of thousands of birds. Two years later an explosion on the Union Oil Company oil platform, six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara in California, resulted in the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil.

These highly visible examples of humanity’s impact on the environment occurred as the age of colour television began and broadcasters discovered that major pollution events made visually dramatic news stories. Each decade since has witnessed at least one massive oil spill from a super tanker or oil platform, these serve as timely reminders that environmental issues have not gone away.

The history of contemporary environmentalism has been marked by the establishment of new institutions. Campaigns on issues such as pesticide use and nuclear testing led to the development of a new breed of professional campaign groups which have become the public face of environmentalism.

At the same time governments have responded to public concerns about the environment by establishing environmental institutions of their own. Agencies, scientific programmes, international agreements, laws and regulations have been established to support environmental goals.

All this has helped give environmentalism a permanence that has transcended the decades.

This article is based on the book Environmentalism Since 1945 by Gary Haq and Alistair Paul, published by Routledge in September 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011