Record levels of air pollution have led South Korea to adopt emergency measures to combat the ensuing “social disaster”. These measures include releasing emergency funds which will be used to install additional air purifiers (e.g. in schools) and stimulate the uptake of clean(er) vehicles. Also this week, a European study provided additional details regarding the enormous health impact of air pollution. It estimates that, each year, air pollution is responsible for 645 000–934 000 deaths in Europe and costs Europeans 2.2 years of life expectancy. Globally, the death toll is almost 9 million.
We have written about air pollution before, but the Korean case suggests that governments may now be forced to adopt drastic measures. This is especially true for developing economies, where air pollution is still rising with economic growth. In terms of particulate matter (PM), the world’s most polluted cities are found in India, where PM levels exceed WHO norms more than tenfold, and (to a lesser extent) in the rest of Asia. In the case of Korea, the situation is especially complicated as it claims that much of its polluted air comes from China and that its neighbor should do more to curb emissions. In Europe, levels of pollution are generally far lower (around the EU target of 25µg/m³ for PM2.5), but still 2.5 times higher than the 10 µg/m³ norm set by the WHO.
There are two reasons why we can expect more action against air pollution. First, the more we learn about its health impact,the more we’ll call for (or accept) draconic measures (and investments) to curb emissions and actively remove pollutants from the air (outdoor or indoor). Second, fighting air pollution is politically less controversial than fighting climate change. This is mostly due to the fact that it directly concerns our health and quality of life and because local investments pay off locally (at least more so than climate measures). So, while many may fall prey to climate fatalism or jump on the climate populism bandwagon (see this week’s note on that topic), air pollution will prove a “safe bet” for businesses and politics to focus their efforts on.