Air pol­lu­tion’s true costs

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Air pol­lu­tion takes years off peo­ple’s lives. It causes sub­stan­tial pain and suf­fer­ing, among adults and chil­dren alike. And it dam­ages food pro­duc­tion, at a time when we need to feed more peo­ple than ever. This is not just an eco­nomic is­sue; it is a moral one.

Air pol­lu­tion can be pro­duced both out­doors and in­doors. For the poor­est fam­i­lies, in­door smog from coal- or dung­fired cook­ing stoves is typ­i­cally the more se­ri­ous prob­lem. As economies de­velop and start to elec­trify, mo­torise, and ur­banise, outdoor air pol­lu­tion be­comes the big­ger is­sue.

Cleaner tech­nolo­gies are avail­able, with the po­ten­tial to im­prove air qual­ity con­sid­er­ably. But pol­i­cy­mak­ers tend to fo­cus my­opi­cally on the costs of ac­tion, rather than the costs of in­ac­tion. With eco­nomic growth and ris­ing en­ergy de­mand set to fuel a steady rise in emis­sions of air pol­lu­tants and rapidly ris­ing con­cen­tra­tions of par­tic­u­late mat­ter (PM) and ozone in the com­ing decades, this ap­proach is un­ten­able.

A new OECD re­port, The Eco­nomic Con­se­quences of Outdoor Air Pol­lu­tion, es­ti­mates that outdoor air pol­lu­tion will cause 6-9 mil­lion pre­ma­ture deaths an­nu­ally by 2060, com­pared to three mil­lion in 2010. That is equiv­a­lent to a per­son dy­ing ev­ery 45 sec­onds. Cu­mu­la­tively, more than 200 mil­lion peo­ple will die pre­ma­turely in the next 45 years as a re­sult of air pol­lu­tion.

There will also be more pol­lu­tion-re­lated ill­ness. New cases of bron­chi­tis in chil­dren aged 6-12 are fore­cast to soar to 36 mil­lion per year by 2060, from 12 mil­lion to­day. For adults, we pre­dict ten mil­lion new cases per year by 2060, up from 3.5 mil­lion to­day. Chil­dren are also be­ing in­creas­ingly af­fected by asthma. All of this will trans­late into more pol­lu­tion-re­lated hospi­tal ad­mis­sions, pro­jected to rise to 11 mil­lion in 2060, from 3.6 mil­lion in 2010.

Th­ese health prob­lems will be con­cen­trated in densely pop­u­lated ar­eas with high PM con­cen­tra­tions, es­pe­cially cities in China and In­dia. In per capita terms, mor­tal­ity is also set to reach high lev­els in East­ern Europe, the Cau­ca­sus re­gion, and other parts of Asia, such as South Korea, where aging pop­u­la­tions are highly vul­ner­a­ble to air pol­lu­tion.

The i mpact of air pol­lu­tion is of­ten dis­cussed in dol­lar terms. By 2060, 3.75 bil­lion work­ing days per year could be lost due to the ad­verse health ef­fects of dirty air – what economists call the “disu­til­ity of ill­ness.” The di­rect mar­ket im­pact of this pol­lu­tion in terms of lower worker pro­duc­tiv­ity, higher health spend­ing, and lower crop yields, could ex­ceed 1% of GDP, or $2.6 tril­lion, an­nu­ally by 2060.

Mas­sive as they are, how­ever, the dol­lar fig­ures do not re­flect the true costs of air pol­lu­tion. Pre­ma­ture deaths from breath­ing in small par­ti­cles and toxic gases, and the pain and suf­fer­ing from res­pi­ra­tory and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases, do not have a mar­ket price. Nor does the ex­pe­ri­ence of con­stantly in­hal­ing foul-smelling air, or forc­ing your child to wear a face mask just to play out­side. Th­ese bur­dens weigh far more heav­ily on peo­ple than any price tag can rep­re­sent.

Nonethe­less, the truth re­mains that pol­i­cy­mak­ers tend to re­spond more to hard fig­ures than to ab­stract ex­pe­ri­ences. So the OECD ex­am­ined myr­iad eco­nomic stud­ies on air pol­lu­tion to quan­tify what peo­ple’s health is worth to them.

On av­er­age, in­di­vid­u­als would be pre­pared to pay around $30 to re­duce their an­nual risk of dy­ing pre­ma­turely by one in 100,000. Us­ing well-es­tab­lished tech­niques, th­ese “will­ing­ness-to-pay” fig­ures were con­verted into an over­all value of pre­ma­ture deaths caused by outdoor air pol­lu­tion, as il­lus­trated, for ex­am­ple, in the OECD’s Mor­tal­ity Risk Val­u­a­tion in En­vi­ron­ment, Health and Trans­port Poli­cies.

By that mea­sure, the global cost of pre­ma­ture deaths caused by outdoor air pol­lu­tion would reach a stag­ger­ing $18-25 tril­lion a year by 2060. Ar­guably, this is not “real” money, as the costs are not re­lated to any mar­ket trans­ac­tions. But it does re­flect the value peo­ple put on their very real lives – and the value they would put on poli­cies that would help to de­lay their very real deaths.

It is time for gov­ern­ments to stop fuss­ing about the costs of ef­forts to limit air pol­lu­tion and start wor­ry­ing about the much larger costs of al­low­ing it to con­tinue unchecked. Their ci­ti­zens’ lives are in their hands.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.