A new report from the International Energy Agency paints both a dreary and optimistic picture of the dangers of air pollution. On the one hand, air pollution is linked to an estimated 6.5 million deaths per year — a number that is expected to rise in coming decades. On the other hand, even small investments in technology could help curb the number of annual deaths attributed to air pollution.
The IEA report looks at two main types of pollution: outdoor pollution, which kills an estimated 3 million, and indoor pollution, which kills an estimated 3.5 million. Outdoor pollution largely comes from things like dirty, fuel-inefficient cars, factories, and power plants (the energy sector is still responsible for the majority of air pollution). Indoor pollution comes from things like wood, coal, dung, or other types of solid fuel that people use for cooking or lighting indoors — when burned, those solid fuels give off particulate pollution that can cause respiratory diseases, cancer, and death.
Overall, air pollution is the fourth greatest risk factor for human health, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks, and smoking, and more than 80 percent of the world’s urban population lives in areas where the air pollution exceeds the guidelines set by the World Health Organization.
According to the report, however, even small increases in technology or energy efficiency could prevent millions of these deaths. The report outlines three primary ways for reducing air pollution: setting ambitious, long-term air quality goals, creating a package of clean air policies for the energy sector, and ensuring effective monitoring and evaluation of air pollution.
“With only a 7 percent increase in total energy investment over the period to 2040, the Clean Air Scenario produces a sharp improvement in health compared with our main scenario: premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are 1.7 million lower in 2040 and, from household pollution, 1.6 million lower,” the report reads.
Implementing these actions — known together as the Clean Air Scenario — would also have co-benefits beyond reducing air pollution. The report states that reducing air pollution would help spur the transformation of the energy sector mandated by the Paris climate agreement, which requires countries to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Industrial and power sector emissions standards, for instance, could help curb both particulate pollution and greenhouse gas pollution. Policies that support renewable forms of energy also help avoid both air pollution and greenhouse gas pollution — and this could be applied to both outdoor pollution, with solar electricity, and indoor pollution, with things like solar stoves.
And if reducing air pollution will save lives, reducing both air pollution and greenhouse gas pollution will save even more lives -- a new study from Columbia University’s Earth Institute recently found that as both global temperature and global population rise, the number of heat-related deaths in places like New York City is also expected to spike.
The good news is that some heavy polluters, like China, have already begun enacting policies to curb air pollution. New controls on the power sector, the report notes, have been largely responsible for total sulfur dioxide emissions in China falling by one third in the past ten years.
But air pollution is still a tricky problem to solve. As Vox's Brad Plumer points out, some countries have tried to get people to switch to cleaner sources of fuel for their stoves and homes, and have failed — in a lot of places, the dirty fuels simply are the cheapest, and that makes them incredibly appealing in spite of their health threats