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Air pollution set to become biggest global killer

Increased greenhouse gases emissions are not only speeding up dangerous climate change –  they are creating a health crisis that will kill millions. Urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation, a new report warns.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in its environmental outlook up to 2050 forecasts that continuing along the present path could lead to a “doubling of deaths from exposure to particulate air pollutants leading to respiratory failure from current levels to 3.6 million every year globally, with most occurring in China and India".

The chart (below) shows the result if rising energy demand continues to be met by burning fossil fuel. As the OECD adds: “Progress on an incremental, piecemeal, business-as-usual basis in the coming decades will not be enough.”

Deaths from pollution

China is in the front line of this epidemic and a report published in the Lancet says that in 2010 air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China, almost 40% of the global total related to this cause.

Shanghai is currently suffering air quality so bad that children and older people have been warned to stay indoors seven times this month. On December 6, the air quality index surged high above the level of dangerous health risk. There were over 360 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air, 14 times higher than safe daily exposure levels, according to the World Health Organisation.

The situation was even worse a few weeks ago in the north-eastern city of Harbin, where particulate levels reached 40 times the WHO safe level. But whilst the young and the old were told to stay inside, workers were still expected to make their way through 10 metre visibility to work.

What the WHO levels count are very tiny particles, around 2.5 microns in diameter. These are more dangerous than larger particles which the body's defences can keep out. Smaller particles get through and embed themselves in vulnerable tissue.

Winter is smog time in China, just as it was formerly in industrial Britain. When the heating goes on, coal-fired power stations step up production, adding to what is already in the atmosphere from industrial production and year-round coal burning.

Just to underline the point, this picture shows last winter's smog in north-east China as seen from space.

Smog in China
Chinese premier Li Keqiang has promised his regime will cut coal consumption and control the number of cars. But local authorities are being told to make deep spending cuts and the cheapest way to run cities is on coal. The main reaction by local authorities has been to lie about the figures.

The government says it will take energy production out of government control and open it up to the market. On the basis of no evidence they claim that this, along with a carbon trading scheme, will ease the problem. But the corporations and big state-owned business are opposing the changes and there is no timescale for achieving them.

China has paid for double digit economic growth every year for two decades with an environment so degraded that the quality of people's lives is being wrecked. Shocking reports come in all the time, such as the recent discovery of 16,000 dead pigs in the river that supplies drinking water to Shanghai. Soil erosion and water pollution are damaging agricultural production.

To paraphrase the Roman historian Tacitus, they have ravaged and slaughtered and called it progress, and they have created a desert and called it growth.

But people in China are fighting back. Anger over the environment is said to be the single biggest cause of unrest in a country where mass demonstrations and resistance are happening more and more, even if the government tries to cover it up.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
10 December 2013

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