Clean air policies can help you live longer

By: suchamojo

The one positive that resulted from the global lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic was the reduction in the levels of air pollution. 

Populations living in some of the most polluted areas of the globe witnessed blue skies, while wildfires exacerbated by a drier and hotter climate sent smoke to the normally clean skies of cities thousands of miles away. 

The result is that we are looking at two conflicting futures if our policies are not changed to reduce usage of fossil fuels.

Unless global particulate air pollution is reduced to meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline, the average person is set to lose 2.2 years off their lives.

As per new data from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) the health threat of a world without policy action is immense. 

Residents of the most polluted areas of the world could see their lives cut short by five years or more. 

“During a truly unprecedented year where some people accustomed to breathing dirty air experienced clean air and others accustomed to clean air saw their air dirty, it became acutely apparent the important role policy has played and could play in reducing fossil fuels that contribute both to local air pollution and climate change,” says 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). 

Learning from China model

China is showing that policy can produce sharp reductions in pollution. Since the country began its “war against pollution” in 2013, China has reduced its particulate pollution by 29 percent—making up three-quarters of the reductions in air pollution across the world. As a result, China’s people have added about 1.5 years onto their lives, assuming these reductions are sustained. 

In Southeast Asia, air pollution is emerging as a major threat in metropolises like Bangkok, New Delhi, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta. The average resident in these cities stands to gain two to five years of life expectancy if pollution levels were reined in to meet the WHO guideline. At the same time, in Central and West Africa, the effects of particulate pollution on life expectancy are comparable to those of well-known threats like HIV/AIDS and malaria yet receive far less attention. 

“Fossil-fuel driven air pollution is a global problem that requires strong policies at every front—including from the world climate negotiators who are meeting in the coming months. The AQLI’s latest data provides leaders and citizens alike with the justification for strong clean air policies in the form of longer lives,” Ken Lee, the director of the AQLI. 

Worrying signs for India

  1. All of India’s 1.3 billion people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline
  2. Particulate pollution has increased over time. Since 1998, average annual particulate pollution has increased 15 percent, cutting nine years off the life of the average resident over those years
  3. Nearly 40% of India’s population is exposed to pollution levels not seen in any other country, with 510 million residents of northern India on track to lose 8.5 years of life expectancy on average, if pollution levels persist
  4. The annual average PM2.5 concentration in the cities of Allahabad and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh is 12 times the WHO guideline. Residents of Lucknow stand to lose 11.1 years of life expectancy if these pollution levels persist
  5. New Delhi is also highly polluted. Residents of Delhi could see up to 10 years added to their lives if pollution were reduced to meet the WHO guideline; up to seven years if pollution met India’s national standard.
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