Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Air Pollution Seen Costing Trillions to Save Millions, IEA Says

  • Energy agency calls for setting international air-quality goal
  • Eighty percen of cities that monitor levels fail WHO standards

Air pollution will continue rising in the next decades unless nations around the world invest trillions in cleaner energy and emissions controls, the International Energy Agency said.

The Paris-based agency is calling for governments to adopt a strategy to cut pollutants by half, a plan that would add about 7 percent to the total energy investment needed through 2040, according to a report Monday. That includes $4.8 trillion for advanced pollution control and accelerating the transformation of the energy industry.

“Clean air is a basic human right that most of the world’s population lacks,” said Executive Director Fatih Birol. “We need to revise our approach to energy development so that communities are not forced to sacrifice clean air in return for economic growth.”

The IEA’s strategy pushes for cleaner fuels, energy efficiency, better cooking facilities and emissions controls. It also calls for a collective long-term air quality goal, policies for implementation and regulations to monitor and enforce it. The agency said the efforts may cut pollution-related deaths by more than 3 million a year.

Source: IEA

Poor air quality is affecting the entire planet, with 80 percent of cities that monitor levels failing to meet standards set by the World Health Organization. Public pressure is mounting in countries such as China, prompting ambitious renewable energy agendas. The developed West also has its fair share of smog, with London surpassing the EU’s annual limits on air pollution just eight days into 2016.

The energy industry is the single largest man-made contributor to poor air quality, the IEA report said. Most of it comes from unregulated and inefficient fuels. The agency sees air pollution as the fourth-largest threat to human health, after high blood pressure, poor diet and smoking.

What’s actually clogging up our air? These three pollutants have the biggest impact on health.

1. Particulate matter

Tiny particles that float in the air, and can be either liquid and solid. They’re linked to detrimental health impacts, such as chronic lung diseases. The severity depends on the size of the particles. The bigger they are, the more damage they can do to your respiratory system. About 85 percent of PMs comes from the energy industry, according to the IEA.

2. Sulfur dioxide

A gas made from burning fossil fuels. Most of it comes from power plants and industrial processes such as metals processing with almost all from the energy industry. It causes adverse health effects and can also be dissolved into water, resulting in acid rain.

2. Nitrogen oxide

A greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Almost all of it comes from the transportation sector and power plants that burn fossil fuels. It’s a toxic gas that causes lung inflammation and other health problems when inhaled.

What are the main causes of air pollution?

1. Poverty 

There are 2.7 billion people in the world who burn biomass for cooking. Smoke inhalation from this, as well as burning kerosene for lighting, is estimated to cause 3.5 million premature deaths a year, mostly women and children in developing Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

2. Fossil-fuel intensive industries

Power plants that burn fossil fuels and industrial facilities are major emitters. Burning coal is responsible for 60 percent of combustion-related sulfur dioxide emissions.

3. Urbanization

Tightly-packed cities with roads full of traffic lead to dirty air. Two thirds of the $2.3 trillion investment into pollution control technologies recommended by the IEA is to comply with elevated vehicle emissions standards.

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