Particulate pollution continues to be the world’s greatest risk to human health, but improving the air quality is possible if correct policies are implemented, the report says.
The Covid-19 pandemic reduced global air pollution in its first year but there was little change in global particulate pollution which remains one of biggest killers, a new report has found.
The report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago said on Tuesday that air pollution takes 2.2 years off the global average life expectancy, or a combined 17 billion life-years.
The analysis of the satellite-derived data in the annual report known as the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) showed that over 97 percent of the world population are now considered to live in areas that exceed the dangerous threshold determined by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The health organisation last year updated its guide on acceptable levels of air pollution last year for the first time since 2005, bringing the benchmark to 5 µg/m3 from 10 µg/m3 – signalling that air pollution is more dangerous than it was thought.
The analysis of the satellite-derived data in the annual report known as Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) showed that over 97 percent of the world population are now considered to live in areas that exceed the WHO’s updated threshold.
South Asia is battling the deadliest pollution
The deadly impact of air pollution was visible in South Asia, where it is likely to cost an average of five years of its residents' lives. Since 2012, India has been the source of 44 percent of the world’s increase in pollution.
Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Central and West Africa, and China were the most polluted countries and regions after South Asia, respectively.
The United States and Europe produced the least pollution last year, the report said, even though their pollution levels do not meet the WHO’s new guideline.
That’s a health crisis that is widely being ignored, Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI along with colleagues at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) warned.
“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than 2 years of life expectancy. This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space,” Greenstone said.
To put things in perspective, the report says that the air pollution’s impact on life expectancy is comparable to smoking, which reduces life expectancy in these countries by as much as 2.5 years.
It is more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, six times that of HIV/AIDS, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism.
But air pollution is much deadlier than these because while it is possible to quit smoking or take precautions against diseases, everyone must breathe air.
There is hope
“Fortunately, history teaches us that it does not need to be this way. In many places around the planet,” Professor Greenstone said. “Strong policies, supported by an equally strong willingness for change, have succeeded in reducing air pollution.”
China was an example of how an effective fight against air pollution can substantially and swiftly reduce pollution, even though the country still exceeds the WHO’s guidelines.
While the country saw the highest pollution levels in 2013, its policy action caused a swift reduction in pollution levels, by 36,6 percent ever since. The same level of reduction took the US and Europe to reach seven years.