Air pollution is the top environmental killer
Don’t breathe deep – the air may be killing you.
May 27, 2014
Article at a glance
- Toxic air pollution now number one environmental killer, causing 3.5 million deaths every year
- Total estimated cost ammount to $3.5 trillion a year
- Biggest increase in mortalities in emerging economies
- Significant part of toxic air pollution caused by road transport
Toxic air pollution now causes more than 3.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year – far more than previously thought, according to a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Speaking at the release of The Cost of Air Pollution: Health Impacts of Road Transport, Angel Gurría, OECD secretary-general, said air pollution surpasses poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water as the biggest environmental cause of premature deaths. In total, it costs advanced economies plus China and India an estimated $3.5 trillion a year in premature deaths and ill health.
“Really this is a ‘sputnik moment,’ a wakeup call,” Gurría told a press conference at the International Transport Forum 2014 in Leipzig, Germany, last week. He revealed that between 2005 and 2010, the number of premature deaths worldwide from air pollution increased by 4%. “We knew intuitively that air pollution was not good, but now we have in great detail exactly how much, how far, and how much it costs.”
Last October, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, classified outdoor air pollution as a cancer-causing agent (carcinogen). “The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Section. “We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”
The OECD report reveals that for the 34 OECD member countries, the economic cost of deaths and illness from air pollution increased by about 10% between 2005 and 2010, reaching $1.7 trillion in 2010 based on the value people attach to not having their lives cut short by cancer, heart disease or respiratory problems. However, the biggest increase in mortality was in the emerging economies, where the growth in traffic has outstripped efforts to improve the environmental performance of vehicles.
"It is that simple, that complicated, that dire and that straightforward if we want to stay within a 2°C warming limit."
Through the tailpipe
In China, deaths from air pollution increased by about 5% in this period. In India, they rose by 12%. In OECD countries, deaths fell 4% overall, though they still increased in 14 of the 34 member countries, such as Australia, Japan and Portugal ,which have failed to stop the dangerous rise in air pollution.
A significant amount of the toxins spew from vehicle tailpipes with about 50% of the cost in OECD countries attributable to road transport. In most OECD countries, the death toll from heart and lung diseases caused by air pollution is much higher than the from traffic accidents. In China, the costs from air pollution are $1.4 trillion, while in India they amount to nearly $500 billion. In these countries, power plants, industry and small boilers play a more important role than road transport in air pollution.
“Right now, drivers pay to enjoy mobility. But the cost to the environment and to people’s health isn’t fully reflected in the price we pay to drive,” Gurría says. “Individuals alone can’t solve the challenge of air pollution – it requires collective action, and so governments must intervene.”
Amongst its recommendations, the OECD advocates removing incentives favoring diesel. While emission standards are improving, diesel vehicles cause most of the harmful air pollutants generated by road transport. Despite this, in many countries, the majority of new cars entering the market today are diesel, often because the taxes on vehicles and fuels favor diesel.
“There is no environmental justification for taxing diesel less than petrol. Air pollution is destroying our health and the planet. Phasing out tax incentives on diesel would be a step towards reducing the costs to both and in fighting climate change,” said Gurría.
At the press conference, Anthony Cox, head of climate, biodiversity and water at the OECD, said there are huge co-benefits between policies to address air pollution and policies to address climate change. “Carbon pricing, for example, addresses both CO2 emissions but will also have an impact on the cost of fuel. It will also have an impact on the extent of fuel use and an impact on the emissions as a result.”
Guerra added that the OECD position on climate change is clear. “We have to go to zero net emissions from fossil fuels in the second half of the century. It is that simple, that complicated, that dire and that straightforward if we want to stay within a 2°C warming limit (over the pre-industrial average) because the way we’re going now we’re going to overshoot it.”