The health benefits of fight­ing cli­mate change

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Gov­ern­ments of­ten see cli­mate change as too costly to ad­dress. In fact, it is too costly to ig­nore. That is why the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO), for ex­am­ple, has linked the pre­ven­tion of dis­as­trous cli­mate change to “im­me­di­ate health benefits and health cost sav­ings” from the re­duc­tion of air pol­lu­tion.

The statis­tics are grim. Air pol­lu­tion caused more than 7 mln pre­ma­ture deaths – one in eight glob­ally – in 2012, com­pared to nearly 6 mln pre­ma­ture deaths from tobacco.

One of the big­gest causes of harm are the fine par­ti­cles called PM2.5, with a di­am­e­ter of less than 2.5 mi­crom­e­ters. They wreak havoc by trav­el­ing deep into the lungs, con­tribut­ing to in­flam­ma­tion, can­cer, and re­s­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tion, or by pass­ing into the blood­stream, where they can trig­ger changes in blood ves­sels that cause heart at­tacks and strokes. The com­bus­tion of diesel and coal are among the main causes of air pol­lu­tion, with 3.7 mln deaths at­trib­uted to out­door fumes and 4.3 mln re­sult­ing from poorly ven­ti­lated homes. Mo­torised trans­port now ac­counts for half of pre­ma­ture deaths from am­bi­ent par­tic­u­late mat­ter in the 34 OECD coun­tries. Coal-fired power is also the main source of car­bon diox­ide, the main green­house gas re­spon­si­ble for cli­mate change, which causes about 150,000 pre­ma­ture deaths an­nu­ally and threat­ens per­va­sive risks this cen­tury and be­yond.

To be sure, the coal in­dus­try has helped bil­lions of peo­ple es­cape poverty, not least in China, where coal-fired power has un­der­pinned the nearly 700% growth in per capita in­come since 1990. But hu­man health is at greater risk in coun­tries that burn more coal. Re­search for the Global Com­mis­sion on the Econ­omy and Cli­mate last year cal­cu­lated that par­tic­u­late mat­ter alone caused 1.23 mln pre­ma­ture deaths in China – the world’s top coal-con­sum­ing econ­omy – in 2010.

Es­ti­mates for 2012 sug­gest that 88% of air-pol­lu­tion­re­lated deaths oc­cur in low- to mid­dle-in­come coun­tries, rep­re­sent­ing 82% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. The West­ern Pa­cific and Southeast Asian re­gions bear the bur­den of 1.67 mln and 936,000 deaths, re­spec­tively.

But pol­lu­tion is wors­en­ing and tak­ing lives in high­in­come coun­tries as well. For ex­am­ple, PM2.5 re­duces life ex­pectancy across the Euro­pean Union by eight months and, to­gether with ozone, was re­spon­si­ble for 430,000 pre­ma­ture deaths in the EU’s 28 mem­ber states in 2011. In Bri­tain, more than six decades af­ter the Great Smog of 1952, PM2.5 pol­lu­tion lev­els still per­sis­tently ex­ceed WHO guide­lines. The health costs of air pol­lu­tion in the EU are up to EUR 940 bln an­nu­ally.

The WHO re­cently car­ried out a re­view of the ev­i­dence on the health ef­fects of air pol­lu­tion, and found that the range of such ef­fects is broader and oc­cur at lower con­cen­tra­tions than pre­vi­ously thought. In ad­di­tion to the well-known ef­fects of air pol­lu­tion on the lungs and heart, new ev­i­dence points to its detri­men­tal im­pact on chil­dren’s devel­op­ment, in­clud­ing in utero. Some stud­ies even link air pol­lu­tion to di­a­betes, a ma­jor chronic dis­ease and health chal­lenge in In­done­sia, China, and West­ern coun­tries. De­spite the over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence of health risks, many coun­tries rou­tinely ig­nore air-qual­ity stan­dards – as well as the emis­sions mon­i­tor­ing needed for ef­fec­tive re­gional co­op­er­a­tion – mainly ow­ing to gov­ern­ments’ fear of their eco­nomic im­pact. Eco­nomic mod­els used by ad­vis­ers to shape devel­op­ment strat­egy – and touted by lob­by­ists to in­flu­ence de­ci­sions on ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture projects – ex­clude the hu­man cost of air pol­lu­tion and the long-term benefits of mea­sures to re­duce it.

Any so­lu­tions to the prob­lems posed by air pol­lu­tion will re­quire not only new eco­nomic mod­els, but also in­te­grated mea­sures by lo­cal, na­tional, and in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ments. Cut­ting emis­sions from ur­ban trans­port, for ex­am­ple, will in­volve city may­ors, lo­cal plan­ners, and na­tional pol­i­cy­mak­ers work­ing to­gether to in­duce com­pact devel­op­ment.

For­tu­nately, gov­ern­ment sup­port for ef­fec­tive ac­tion is grow­ing. Air pol­lu­tion is at the top of China’s do­mes­tic agenda, fol­low­ing the chok­ing smog dubbed “air­poca­lypse” that en­gulfed its ma­jor cities in Jan­uary 2013 and Chai Jing’s re­cent doc­u­men­tary (and so­cial-me­dia phe­nom­e­non) “Un­der the Dome,” which ex­posed the cat­a­strophic health im­pacts of air pol­lu­tion. In­deed, China’s gov­ern­ment has closed some of the coun­try’s dirt­i­est power plants, re­sult­ing in a drop in coal con­sump­tion last year for the first time since 1998.

A re­cent draft res­o­lu­tion on air pol­lu­tion and health for the World Health As­sem­bly (the WHO’s gov­ern­ing body) sug­gests that coun­tries should “un­der­score” a link be­tween air pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change. Coun­tries should adopt the WHO air-qual­ity guide­lines and high­light ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for greener ur­ban plan­ning, cleaner en­ergy, more ef­fi­cient build­ings, and safer walk­ing and cy­cling. A for­mal ac­knowl­edge­ment by gov­ern­ments of the im­me­di­ate health-re­lated benefits of cut­ting car­bon­diox­ide emis­sions can tip the scales to­ward greater progress on cli­mate change, air pol­lu­tion, and hu­man health si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers ev­ery­where should recog­nise the eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties – and the po­lit­i­cal benefits – that such an out­come prom­ises to de­liver.

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