Air Pollution, Not International Agreements, Driving Adoption of Better Pollution Standards

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Source: Adobe Stock/Snap Happy

One of the major gripes about environmental legislation is that while the West creates ever stricter laws and ever lower emissions targets, many parts of the world completely flout agreements or do not even sign up to them in the first place.

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The steel industries of Europe and the U.S. frequently complain that they must meet tough emission targets that their competitors in China, India and elsewhere can avoid either because their governments have not signed up to such restrictions, or because they simply are not enforced.

The True Cost of Air Pollution

Well, finally after years of complaints it appears the tide is turning but tragically it has come about due to an appalling loss of life that is only just being recognized. Air pollution alone causes 6.5 million early deaths a year the Guardian newspaper reports. That is double the number of people lost to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and four times the number killed on the world’s roads. In Africa, air pollution kills three times more people than malnutrition.

Now, to be fair half the early deaths result from indoor cooking with smoky fuels, a problem linked closely to poverty but that is readily solved even if the application often lacks the political will to implement. But the other half of those early deaths result from outdoor air pollution — caused by traffic, power stations, factories, construction, heating and more.

But rather than international pressure it is growing unrest among domestic populations that is finally having the most impact. You only have to look at the drastic measures taken in China for the Beijing Olympics to see it had finally dawned on the ruling Communist Party there that grey skies were a source of shame, but it took a growing revolt among ordinary people for them to actively force the closure of older steel mills, coal-fired power stations and heavy industries like cement, alumina and so on close to urban populations.

Over the last few years, China has become the biggest investor in solar and wind power, and has the most ambitious nuclear power program in the world, not just for diversification but to reduce air pollution. Beijing has days of chronic pollution but the title of most polluted city has passed to India, where Delhi is among a host of Indian cities suffering from such bad levels of particulate pollution that schools can be closed and visibility can be severely limited.

Pollution in India

As an article by Damien Carrington in the Guardian puts it you never see “air pollution” written as the cause on a death certificates but it is a global crisis causing millions of deaths a year. Air pollution has now been linked to increased mental illness, diabetes and kidney disease, and toxic nanoparticles have been recently discovered in the brains of the deceased, suggesting a link to degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the most worrying impact is on children, whose lung development is stunted and whose intelligence can be reduced. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently found that 300 million children live in areas with extreme air pollution — six times higher than international guidelines — and that almost 90% of the world’s children live in places where outdoor air pollution exceeds World Health Organization limits.

In Delhi, already the most polluted city in the world, they are witnessing the biggest health crisis in India today. Eight people die in Delhi every day from pollution. Bangalore is not very far behind. And not a single Indian city meets India’s own clean air benchmark set by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), let alone the standards prescribed by the WHO. The Times of India reports 1.1 million deaths a year are attributed to air pollution in India, much it from industrial activity such as coal-fired power stations, steel plants, transportation and household burning of wood and dung for cooking.

Increasingly authorities in emerging markets are realizing this is not an issue they can bat away with the excuse that the developed world was given the space to industrialize so they should too, pollution being just an unfortunate side effect.

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If industrialization is not achieved with similar environmental standards to those adopted in mature markets, politicians will find themselves out of a job or worse as pollution becomes such a prominent social issue that they have to be seen to act.

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