Spare the Air: The Silver Lining in the Growing Air Pollution Battle
Posted on March 2, 2016
If you had to guess, what would you say are the leading causes of death each year? It may come as no surprise that high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking are at the top of the list. But it might surprise you that air pollution is the fourth greatest risk of death, killing 5.5 million people around the world, according to new research from The University of British Columbia.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is now one of the world’s biggest public health issues and scientists have warned that the fatality figure is expected to rise to six million per year by 2050 if nothing is done.
WHO adds that, “nearly 70% of people in cities (around the world) are exposed to pollution above recommended levels.
The costs of poor air quality are not just restricted to mortality rates. For decades, we accepted or ignored air pollution as a necessary accompaniment to industrialisation and economic growth. Ironically, we’re now discovering that the current, and future, blight of smog threatens to cripple our economies. This winter has been particularly hard for cities in China, India and Iran, where schools and businesses were forced to close down for days at a time as the air outside hit levels nearly 40 times higher than the levels the WHO considers safe to breathe. At this pace, governments could be left footing the bill for millions of mostly chronic, long-term ailments, lengthy hospital stays and a reduced quality of life for many of their citizens.
The effects are also visible across Europe. According to The Guardian, “the cost of disease and the premature deaths caused in Europe every year by air pollution was more than $1.6 trillion in 2010, nearly 10% of the gross domestic product of the EU in 2013”. European cities like Barcelona and Milan even resorted to banning traffic due to emergency-level smog earlier this winter.
But despite these daunting figures, a silver lining is beginning to shine through. According to an article in BABW News, death rates in the United States from air pollution dropped, “from 119,000 to 79,000 between 1990 and 2013. Europe’s deaths dropped from 350,000 to 218,000 over the same time period”.
What can be done to accelerate positive change for air pollution?
At COP 21 in Paris, nearly 200 countries agreed to a “historic” commitment to keep global temperatures within 2.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
Additionally, China, introduced its 2013 Air Pollution Prevention Action Plan. The plan requires the Beijing region (Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei) to achieve negative coal consumption growth by 2017 by replacing coal with electricity generated from natural gas and non-fossil fuel energy, and by closing down excess iron, steel, cement, and other heavy-industry capacities. To reach this goal, China is committed to what amounts essentially to a restructuring of its entire economy, and has been making considerable investments in renewable energy sources.
While it is true that more efficient energy consumption by consumers could have a big impact on the quality of the air we breathe, to achieve real progress in the near future we need to look at big picture solutions. Advancements in how infrastructure, transport and business consume and use energy can create a dramatic change in a short period of time.
By rethinking our global energy mix, including the commercialisation across a wide range of sectors of the hydrogen fuel cell technology that we are developing at Intelligent Energy, we will begin to see the light at the end of the pollution tunnel and a world where simply breathing air becomes the least of our worries.