A new report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) states that a small increase in investment into cleaner energy could halve the number of premature deaths from air pollution by 2040, and pay itself back through huge savings in health costs.
The report estimates that 6.5 million premature deaths per year stem from air pollution-related causes. These pose a crippling social and economic cost to societies worldwide, having the most severe impact on the world’s poorest. 3 million of these deaths come from outdoor air pollution, primarily concentrated in developing Asia; these are projected to rise to 4.5 million by 2040 without action. The other 3.5 million deaths are due to household air pollution, mostly from domestic fuel burning; these are predicted to decline to 3 million over the same period, but continue to be linked with poverty and lack of access to modern technology and cleaner energy.
Energy production and use accounts for the majority of man-made air pollution emissions, accounting for 85% of particulate matter emissions and nearly all sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxide emissions. Therefore, the IEA has highlighted the opportunity for change within this sector that could yield huge positive impacts on air quality globally.
“Clean air is a basic human right that most of the world's population lacks,” says IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, emphasising the need for urgent action. “No country – rich or poor – can claim that the task of tackling air pollution is complete. But governments are far from powerless to act and need to act now. Proven energy policies and technologies can deliver major cuts in air pollution around the world and bring health benefits, provide broader access to energy and improve sustainability.”
The organisation has stated that a mere 7% increase in energy investment globally could halve air pollution fatalities by 2040: reducing deaths from outdoor air pollution by 1.7 million, and from indoor air pollution by 1.6 million within this relatively short period. Policies proposed to achieve these improvements include the delivery of clean cooking facilities to 1.8 billion people within this time period, reducing the threat of household air pollution. Fuel switching and emission controls are cited as crucial within the power sector, along with strictly enforced emission standards for road transport and increased energy efficiency within the industrial sector.
Dr Birol emphasises the multiple social and environmental benefits arising from their proposed policy solutions, aside from the vast health improvement. The policies would deliver a steep decline in energy-related pollution, airborne and otherwise, in countries worldwide; they could achieve universal access to modern energy; and could prompt a rapid peak and decline in global greenhouse gas emissions, helping to mitigate climate change.
Such broadly beneficial policy solutions such as this provide continued hope and motivation to enable countries worldwide to tackle air pollution as an urgent but manageable problem.