Health Savings Of Reduced Air Pollution “Dwarf” Cleanup Costs, Says UN Report

UN Environment today released its sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6), assessing the state of the environment over the last five years. The report highlights studies published in the scientific press last year estimating that the health benefits of reducing air pollution would be 1.4 to 2.5 times greater than the costs of mitigation. Savings between 2020 and 2050 would be in the range of US$54.1 trillion, as compared to costs of US$22.1 trillion, in some scenarios cited.

UN Environment’s GEO-6, entitled “Healthy Planet, Healthy People,” warns that “damage to the planet is so dire that people’s health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken,” and it notes that the world is not on track to meet SDG targets by 2030 or 2050, according to a press release.

The report found that “90 per cent of the global population is now forced to live with unhealthy air, particularly in Asia and Africa,” and that the “economic impacts of life years lost, increased health care and lost worker productivity due to air pollution are considerable.”

The costs of implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement to address climate change “could be outweighed by the health benefits of reductions in air pollution-related diseases and deaths alone,” the report says, citing a 2018 study published in the Lancet, which originally modeled the costs and benefits estimates.

The UN report explains that the study “modelled emission levels under various scenarios and estimated the costs of the consequent air pollution-related deaths” resulting from “respiratory diseases ranging from acute lower respiratory tract infections to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.” It then “compared this with the costs of climate-change mitigation by country or region.”

“Depending on the scenario used,” it says, “the health benefits from reduced air pollution were estimated to be, at the global level, 1.4 to 2.5 times greater than the costs of mitigation.” The global health savings of the air pollution mitigation scenario that keeps climate change to 2°C was estimated to be US$54.1 trillion between 2020-2050, “dwarfing the global policy costs of US$22.1 trillion.”

Global Health benefits of air pollution mitigation strategies that keep climate change to 1.5° were even higher in absolute terms – close to $US 80 trillion between 2020-2050, although costs would also be proportionately higher, according to the original Lancet study.

Under all the scenarios examined by the Lancet study, and re-examined in GEO-6, China and India were likely to see the biggest health savings from emission-reduction measures. The European Union and the United States, the report says, would also see large absolute health savings, “but not enough to fully compensate the costs.”

This map of air pollution deaths highlights the high burden of this risk that affects people in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, South-East Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean regions. In many such countries, the proportion of people who die from air pollution is double or triple that of the Americas, Europe and high-income Asia and Western Pacific regions. Source: GEO6, UN Environment 2019, adapted from Health Effects Institute

Health Impacts of Air Pollution

The UN report states that in 2016, “[e]xposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution was responsible for 6 million to 7 million premature deaths,” citing data from a Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study by the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, as well as the latest figures of the World Health Organization (WHO), respectively.

The GBD study, it says, “estimated that long-term exposure to ambient PM [particulate matter] was responsible for between 3.6 and 4.7 million of those premature deaths,” which were due to “heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease and respiratory infections.”

“Between 2010 and 2016,” the report states that deaths attributable to particulate matter exposure “increased by 11% per cent globally due to increased air pollution, as well as growth and aging of the population,” with the largest number of deaths in 2016 in Asia.

While levels of exposure have begun to decline in China, it says, they are increasing in parts of South Asia.

While these estimates of premature deaths are considerable, the report explains that they “underestimate the total number of individuals affected, because air pollution has potential effects on everyone who breathes the air,” noting that there is no known safe level of annual average exposure to particulate matter.

Policy Conclusions

The policy approaches applied to address problems of air pollution include “planning regimes, emissions and technology standards, market interventions, public information and international cooperation,” the report says.

However, it explains that a key lesson is that these “policy approaches must be adapted to specific contexts.” For example, high income countries rely on “information-rich planning regimes and regulatory approaches backed by government enforcement capacity,” which “may not be the most appropriate for settings where information is poor and enforcement capacity is lacking.”

“In such settings,” the report says, “voluntary standards, market interventions and public information may prove more effective in decreasing emissions and hazardous exposures.”

Image Credits: Shutterstock/TonyV3112.