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“Toxic air” – The price we pay for pollution

Air pollution from power plant chimneys. Toxic air concept.
Image credit: jvdwolf / 123rf

A recently unveiled report has calculated the cost of air pollution due to fossil fuels, pegging it at US$2.9 trillion a year – equivalent to 3.3 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) lost to toxic air. The cost of toxic air as a result of fossil fuels translates to US$8 billion – a day.

India ranks among the three countries hardest-hit by air pollution in fiscal terms, the others being mainland China and the United States. India loses US$150 billion to air pollution, according to the report, while mainland China loses US$900 billion and the United States loses US$600 billion. 

The report was produced by non-government organisations (NGOs) the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Entitled “Toxic Air: The Price of Fossil Fuels”, the report marks a landmark initiative to “[quantify] the global cost of air pollution from fossil fuels” according to Greenpeace. “While coal, oil and vehicle companies continue to push outdated technologies, our health and our communities are paying the price,” the NGO reports. 

Yet it does not need to be this way. “While toxic air pollution is a global threat, the solutions are increasingly available and affordable,” Greenpeace says. “Moreover, many of the solutions to air pollution are also the solutions to climate change. Renewable energy and clean energy-powered mass transport systems not only reduce toxic air pollution, but are also critical to limiting the global temperature increase to below 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels.” 

Smoke coming out of factories in the horizon, air pollution is spreading like clouds and covering the setting sun. Shot at rural village of West Bengal, India. Pollution is a global issue worldwide.
Industrial pollution pictured in a village in West Bengal. Image credit: Rudra Narayan Mitra / 123rf

Toxic air costs money, health, and lives

The impact of toxic air does not manifest solely in monetary losses: it also manifests in the loss of human life, the damage to our health, the degradation of our environment, and the continuous changes to our climate resulting in extreme weather patterns and multiple public health catastrophes. According to the report, “air pollution generated by burning fossil fuels is attributed to approximately 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year…Air pollution increases the incidence of chronic and acute illnesses and contributes to millions of hospital visits and billions of work absences due to illness each year. It also damages our economies and the environment.” Every day, there are 12,000 premature deaths as a consequence of fossil fuel-generated air pollution and the resultant exposure to toxic air. 

Health Issues India has reported at length concerning the manifold health effects of exposure to toxic air, as is the daily reality for denizens of many of India’s cities. In fact, India is home to seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world and has regularly grabbed headlines over the situ in its metros – Delhi perhaps being the most notable example. Last year, air quality in the national capital deteriorated to such an extent that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal likened the city to a “gas chamber.” That was not the first time that such a comparison has been made. 

The report reinforces the message that our health suffers due to exposure to toxic air. “Evidence from public health studies,” it notes, “suggests that exposure to an air pollutant or combination of air pollutants, such as PM2.5, NO2 or ozone, is associated with increased incidence of diseases including ischaemic heart disease (IHD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, premature birth (preterm birth), type II diabetes, stroke and asthma.” 

As such, the report elaborates, the economy suffers: “health impacts from air pollution generate economic costs from the cost of treatment, management of health conditions, and from work absences.” Alone, exposure to PM2.5 (referring to fine particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) generated by fossil fuels results in 1.8 billion days of sick leave. 

According to the analysis by Greenpeace and the CREA, “an estimated three million premature adult deaths each year are attributed to cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and lung cancer through exposure to PM2.5 air pollution from fossil fuels. An estimated 500,000 premature deaths from chronic diseases are attributed to fossil fuel-related NO2 pollution and one million premature deaths are attributed to fossil fuel-related ozone pollution annually.” This translates to the estimated death toll of 4.5 million due to the toxic air consequent from fossil fuel pollution. 

Children are among the most vulnerable to toxic air exposure. The report estimates that 40,000 children do not reach their fifth birthday as a consequence of disease contracted due to exposure to PM2.5 – again, generated by fossil fuels. This clearly positions air pollution as both a major threat to child health and to the world’s chances of reaching Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets of reducing newborn mortality to at least as low as twelve per thousand live births in every country and reducing under-five mortality to at least as low as 25 per thousand live births in every country. 

In total, as many as 6.2 million lives are lost prematurely to the collective effects of PM2.5, NO2, and ozone pollution arising from fossil fuels. The years of life lost figure could be as high as 118.9 million; at a minimum, the report estimates these figures to 3.2 million and 63.3 million respectively. 

KOLKATA, INDIA - 22 Oct 2016: Boys play soccer on the Maidan on October 22, 2016 in Kolkata (Calcutta), India
A group of boys play soccer in the smog on a maidan in Kolkata. Environmental concerns such as pollution have a ruinous effect on child health. 

The world needs solutions

What the report makes clear is that the world is in dire need of solutions to mitigate the impact of pollution due to fossil fuels on our health, our environment, and our economy. There is no shortage of solutions. The report notes that “policy to reduce air pollution does not need to be expensive, and, where interventions are costly to implement, the benefits can outweigh the costs.” 

The recommendations include transitions in means of transportation. “As millions of people take private vehicles on a daily basis for work, school or leisure, neighborhood streets are not only clogged with traffic but diesel and petrol engines contribute to poor air quality and lead to an increased concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases,” the report states. This makes a switchover to “low-cost, active and carbon neutral transportation” imperative. This is achievable, if the requisite vision is shown.

“One of the most important steps governments can take to initiate a move towards a sustainable transport system is to set a phase-out date for diesel and petrol cars, while implementing various urban transport measures, such as restricting cars’ access into certain neighborhoods or districts, banning whole categories of cars within city limits, and promoting car-free days,” the report says while also noting that this is entirely feasible. “It is clear that with technological and social changes, cities can eliminate fossil fuel-powered vehicles, rapidly reduce pollution and help find solutions to climate change.” 

The second recommendation is a major retooling of energy infrastructure, as has been called for before. Research published in Nature last year noted that “recent decades have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of historically long-lived fossil fuel energy infrastructure” – highlighting that such a trend is “particularly associated with rapid economic development and industrialisation of emerging markets such as China and India.” The analysis by the CREA and Greenpeace, identifying fossil fuel emissions as the source of 65 percent of premature mortality related to air pollution, asserts that “replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy from sources such as wind and solar reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and emissions of air pollutants, creating a dual benefit for climate and human health. This transition is both feasible and achievable, and power generated by renewable systems is [increasingly] used globally, as technology has matured and installation costs have fallen drastically.” 

As previously reported by Health Issues India, “India is increasing its efforts to increase its green energy capacity, which is projected to account for half of its total energy capacity addition by 2030.” However, that is not to say that energy infrastructure in India is fit for purpose in tackling pollution and climate change. 

“36,158 coal-burning power plants are under construction in India…and even if no fossil fuel-based power plants are ever built again, the world still has a long way to go,” Health Issues India noted. The coal industry in India is often mired in controversy. More than half of India’s coal-fired plants are already set to miss a phased deadline that started in December 2019 to cut emissions of sulfur oxides — a known risk factor in the development of lung disease. The industry is infamous for the poor and dangerous conditions in which its workers operate. As the CREA/Greenpeace report emphasises, there is a vital need to phase out fossil fuels and transition to clean energy – a transition India is making already, but needs to accelerate.

Toxic air is a threat to us all

Air pollution is a threat to the lives of people everywhere. This is not new news – the world has been reminded over and over again how the energy we use intersects with the environment, public health, and the economy. 

When a Delhiite or a Mumbaiker or a resident of any heavily-polluted Indian city stares at a sky of toxic air and inhales lungfuls of toxic fumes, fossil fuels play an enormous part. When an Indian loses their lives before their time, or experiences a health event that impairs their productivity and their quality of life, fossil fuels play an enormous part.

The world – and India – have been reminded over and over again about the dangers of irresponsible energy practices. Whether the data from CREA and Greenpeace will spur efforts to work towards an economy run on clean energy remains to be seen. What is in plain sight, and has been for some time now, is that time is running out to mitigate the damage of our environment – and that while the world fails to act, people are choking. 

“Quantifying the Economic Costs of Air Pollution from Fossil Fuels” can be accessed here and “Toxic Air: The Price of Fossil Fuels” can be accessed here.

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