Humanity is losing the battle for clean air. Despite decades of efforts to combat it, air pollution is taking a growing toll on human health, the environment, and the economy, according to a new Worldwatch Institute study.
Once primarily an urban phenomenon in industrial countries, air pollution has spread worldwide. More than a billion people–one-fifth of all humanity–live in communities that do not meet World Health Organization air quality standards.
In greater Athens, the number of deaths rises sixfold on heavily polluted days. Mexico City has been declared a hardship post for diplomats because of its unhealthy air. In Bombay, simply breathing is equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.
“The technological solutions tried to date have been inadequate, their gains often negated by growth,” according to Hilary F. French, a Researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based organization and author of Clearing the Air: A Global Agenda. “Restoring air quality depends on restructuring the energy, transportation, and industrial systems that generate the pollutants.”
In the U.S., air pollution causes as many as 50,000 deaths per year and costs as much as $40 billion a year in health care and lost productivity.
Around the world, Milan, Shenyang, Tehran, Seoul, and Rio de Janeiro reported the worst levels of sulfur dioxide–a pollutant directly harmful to humans. Paris and Madrid also made the top 10 in the list, produced by a U.N. monitoring network.
“Though concern for human health led to the world’s first control laws, air pollution poses an equally grave threat to the environment,” said French.
“Lakes, streams, and estuaries are dying because of acid rain, 35 percent of Europe’s forests are showing signs of air pollution damage, and crop losses in the U.S. caused by harmful emissions are estimated to be 5-10 percent of total production–more than $5 billion a year.”
Technological solutions–such as scrubbers, filters, and catalytic converters–have long been the primary weapons to control emissions. Their use has become widespread in the industrialized world, but they are still virtually non-existent in most of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and the developing world.
“These technologies have helped, but they are increasingly being overwhelmed by industrialization and growth in car fleets. Policymakers nonetheless persist in combating specific pollutants with technological BandAids rather than addressing the problem at its roots.
“In the United States, for example, new clean air legislation currently before Congress mandates more pollution control technologies and may require the use of alternative fuels, but it pays scant attention to improving energy efficiency, decreasing reliance on cars, and reducing hazardous wastes.”
French advocates instead fundamental reforms in the regulation and design of polluting systems. For example, removing subsidies that keep fuel 3 prices artificially low and thus discourage energy efficiency would directly benefit air quality.
“China, for instance, has improved efficiency an average of 3.7 percent a year since it began its economic reform program in 1979. Similarly, adopting world market prices for energy could help clear the air in the Soviet Union.”
Incorporating the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels into energy planning could both encourage efficiency and the use of nonpolluting, renewable sources, according to French. An experiment under way in New York State forces power suppliers that burn fossil fuels to add one cent per kilowatt-hour to their contract bids to account for air pollution costs.
Taxing emissions can also be effective. Sweden is considering levies on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide from factories and power plants.
Taxes can also be used as an incentive to minimize pollution from automobiles. For instance, purchasers of low-emissions cars could receive a rebate funded by taxes on highly polluting ones. Sweden has such a system to encourage buying cars equipped with catalytic converters. Improved public transportation and urban planning designed to lessen dependence on autos, however, will be necessary to achieve lasting air quality gains.
“Freedom of information can be a crucial component in an air pollution strategy. In the United States, right-to-know legislation has been instrumental in spurring public outcry over toxic chemical emissions, leading to more responsible industrial behavior,” French said.
Because air pollution respects no national boundaries, stepped up international cooperation is critical, according to French. Treaties have already been signed under the auspices of the European Economic Community and the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe to reduce the flow of pollutants across borders.
Some Western European countries are even finding it cheaper and more effective to fund control measures in upwind Eastern European countries than to take further steps at home.
West Germany, for example, is providing East Germany with $163 million in environmental aid to purchase advanced coal-burning technology for power plants and other pollution control measures.
In other cooperative ventures, the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council and Rocky Mountain Institute are advising the Soviet government on energy efficiency.
“While the means are available to restore air quality, it will be a difficult task. In the West, powerful business interests will strongly resist measures that cost them money. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and the developing world, extreme economic problems coupled with shortages of currency mean that money for pollution prevention and control is scarce.
“Around the world, however, the notion that ‘pollution is the price of progress’ has become antiquated. Faced with ever mounting costs to human health and economic losses in agriculture and forestry, countries everywhere are discovering that pollution prevention is a sound investment.”