Count­ing the true costs of air pol­lu­tion

The Myanmar Times - - Views - SI­MON UP­TON news­room@mm­times.com

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 dung-fired 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 Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD) re­port, The Eco­nomic Con­se­quences of Out­door Air Pol­lu­tion, es­ti­mates that out­door air pol­lu­tion will cause 6 to 9 mil­lion pre­ma­ture deaths an­nu­ally by 2060, com­pared to 3 mil­lion in 2010. That is equiv­a­lent to a per­son dy­ing ev­ery 4 to 5 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 pol­lu­tion­re­lated ill­ness. New cases of bron­chi­tis in chil­dren aged six to 12 are fore­cast to soar to 36 mil­lion per year by 2060, from 12 mil­lion to­day. For adults, we pre­dict 10 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 pol­lu­tion­re­lated 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 im­pact 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 per­cent of GDP, or US$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

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.

– Project Syn­di­cate

Si­mon Up­ton is en­vi­ron­ment di­rec­tor at the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD).

Photo: EPA

Smog en­velops the Chilean cap­i­tal Santiago where au­thor­i­ties de­clared a pre­emer­gency state due to the high lev­els of pol­lu­tants reg­is­tered in June.

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