United Nations: Air Pollution Is Killing Millions – But Will Clearing Air Accelerate Climate Change?

Anya Wassenberg - Author

May 13 2016, Updated 9:46 a.m. ET

United Nations agency the World Health Organization just released it’s third Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database with bad news for pretty much everyone on the planet. The facts are stark: air pollution causes more than 3 million deaths around the world each year. But, if the dust clears, will climate change accelerate?

The Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database compares 795 cities in 67 countries, looking at the levels of what is called fine particulate matter over the period from 2008 to 2013. The study was confined to those areas that monitor air pollution on an ongoing basis.

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Air pollution is measured in terms of the number and concentration of microscopic particles (or particulate matter) in the air. Those particles are composed of substances such as sulfur, black carbon and nitrogen oxides. The tiny particles can enter right into the lung tissue as you breath them in. They are known to contribute to many diseases and conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and stroke.

The amount of such particles has increased a full 8 percent, overall, in the 5 year period from 2008 and 2013.

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The air pollution study performed by the World Health Organization (WHO), found that more than 80 percent of the world’s city dwellers live in conditions that don’t meet WHO air quality guidelines. That includes the vast majority – 98 percent – of people living in poor and middle income countries, who face a disproportionate risk from air pollution. But, even high income countries don’t escape the air pollution risk, with up to 56 percent living in sub-par conditions when it comes to air quality.

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“We have a public health emergency in many countries. Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health. It’s dramatic, one of the biggest problems we are facing globally, with terrible future costs to society.”

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Reducing Air Pollution

Zabol, Iran, is named in the database as the city with the unfortunate title of having the most air pollution, with the highest average concentration of particulates in the air. But experience shows that change is possible.

New Delhi, India, is one of the good news stories on the list. Previously at the top of the database, it has dropped to the ninth position after a concerted effort to reduce particulate matter emissions. The city managed to cut the level of microscopic particles in the air by about 20 percent with measures such as banning older vehicles from the city limits. Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research and advocacy at the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, is quoted in The Toronto Star.

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“New Delhi has succeeded in arresting the trend, which shows that if you take action, you will see results.”

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Air Pollution And Climate Change

As pointed out in a piece in the MIT Technology Review, however, those microscopic particles in the air are also protecting us to a certain extent from the effects of global warming and climate change. In particular, sulfur compounds, commonly emitted from coal-fired power plants, can reflect incoming sunlight back out into space, thereby deflecting some of its heating power. The piece cites a 2009 study that suggests nearly half of the effect of greenhouse gasses are being similarly deflected by clouds of microscopic particles.

Will clearing the air pollution have unexpected results on climate change?

Despite the fact that some regions saw improvement, – including more than half the cities in high income countries and more than a third of low or middle income countries – overall, global air pollution levels still increased by 8 percent. There is a long way to go before efforts to reduce air pollution will see a real reduction in those clouds of particulate dust. And, certainly, the effects on human health have to be of paramount concern as world leaders look to negotiate the delicate balance of environmental factors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is an agency within the United Nations as part of the United Nations Development Group. The United Nations’ air pollution database analysis will be discussed at the World Health Assembly in Geneva later this month.

[Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images]


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