Cutting air pollution pays big dividend

Posted: 7 February 2006

Countries and cities that adopt air pollution busting measures can make big economic savings, not only in lower health care costs, but by reducing premature deaths as the toll from pollution-related diseases falls, a new UN report says.

Other benefits, says the latest GEO Year Book, come from reduced damage to agriculture and ecosystems like forests, along with less damage to infrastructure and public buildings from corrosive pollutants.

Energy generation and use is a major source of air pollution. Overall, the economic benefits of tackling air pollution are likely to be six timeshigher than costs of introducing pollution control measures in factories, power stations and cars, says the Year Book.

The findings come from work by the United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the experiences of Mexico City and Santiago, Chile. The US Agency estimates that America's Clean AirAct, alone, will bring benefits of around US$690 billion over the period 1990 to 2010.

The Santiago study assessed the financial benefits of compliance with the Santiago Decontamination Plan at US$ 4 billion over a 15-year period.

European bonus

These findings mirror a new report by the European Commission on achieving improved air quality standards by 2020.

The Commission estimates that an investment of around seven billion Euros to reduce air pollution will deliver benefits totalling Euro 42 billion as a result of "fewer premature deaths, less sickness, fewer hospitaladmissions and improved labour productivity".

The Commission's study says that "although there is no agreed way to monetize ecosystem damage, the environmental benefits of reduced airpollution will also be significant in terms of reduced areas of ecosystems that may be damaged by acidification, eutrophication and ozone".

The report estimates that meeting new targets will reduce damage to agricultural crops by Euro 0.3 billion a year.

Air pollution choking the streets of Kabul.
Air pollution choking the streets of Kabul.
Air pollution choking the streets of Kabul. (Photo credit unknown)
Commenting on the report at its launch at a meeting of environmental ministers in Dubai this week, Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "The world is crying out for more energy in order to lift people out of poverty and deliver the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals. But we know that we cannot rely on the energy structures of the past if we are to deliver a healthy environmentally stable world".

Key findings

The GEO Indicators, which present a snapshot of humanity's progress in managing our planetary habitat, support other findings that rising greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in ecosystem change, such as accelerating ice melt, losses of mountain glaciers, and that increasing exploitation of fisheries stocks is leading to serious depletion.

However, they also show that where action has been taken, there are positive results. The global consumption of chlorofluorocarbons, forinstance, continues to decrease. The proportion of the Earth's surface affording some form of environmental protection to biodiversity continues to increase.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, concluded in 2005, found that around 60 per cent of the ecosystem services examined were degradedor used unsustainably. In particular, about 25 per cent of commercially important fish stocks were over-harvested and up to 25 per cent of global fresh water use exceeds long-term accessible supplies.

Due to population growth and rising incomes, consumption of fish more than tripled from 1961 to 2001, rising from 28 to 96 million tonnes. With a large proportion of fish stocks already over-exploited, a number of countries are turning to marine fish farms to meet the rising demand for fish and shellfish.

However, many of the preent methods of fish farming are damaging the environment, and need to be improved, the Year Book says. Fertiliser, undigested feed, biological waste and veterinary drugs sre frequently released into the oceans and surrounding waterways. Such farms also create conditions for the spread of diseases and parasites, and - through the escape of farmed fish - introduce invasive species.

Food production

Climate change is also expected to affect food production. It is expected that many developing countries in tropical regions may suffer increased climate-related difficulties and increased variability of rainfall.

A 'Green Planet Revolution' in crops and agricultural technology, with a focus on crops better suited to changing environmental conditions, could help reduce negative impacts.

On Energy and Pollution the Year Book says that over half of people in developing countries still rely on biofuel,including wood, dung and agricultural wastes, for cooking and heating, most of which is burnt indoors. The resulting indoor air pollution may be responsible for up to 2.4 million premature deaths a year.

Outdoor air pollution from industries and vehicles may trigger some 800,000 premature deaths a year with 65 per cent occurring in the developing countries of Asia.

Energy gains

The Year Book argues that there are huge efficiency gains possible from conventional power generation, including combined heat and power plants, in which part of the lost heat is used for industrial processes or as district heating schemes.The Year Book also suggests that renewables, such as wind, solar and modern biomass-based fuels and electricity generation, are already competitive with fossil fuels if their wider environmental, social and fuel security benefits are factored in.

It also highlights the success of micro and mini hydropower systems for providing much need electricity in rural areas. For example in Nepal, 150 micro hydropower plants generating two Megawatts of electricity are providing electricity to 15,000 families.

Nepal also has 110,000 biogas plants have been installed for households, with a further 20,000 being installed each year by private firms.

The Year Book says that cleaner burning fuels, like liquid petroleum gas and kerosene, can deliver big improvements in indoor air quality indeveloping countries. This in turn could lead to huge health gains, especially among women and children.

In the transport sector, tougher standards known as Euro 6 are being discussed for heavy duty vehicles in Europe, which could lead to particulate and nitrogen oxide reductions of between 50 per cent and 90 per cent.

Tougher measures are also being adopted in developing countries with large parts of Latin America and Asia on track to meet lower, but nevertheless important, new targets mirroring earlier European Union targets by 2010.

For example, cities like Delhi and Bangkok have shifted vehicle fleets to cleaner fuels like compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas.

Meanwhile new vehicle technologies such as hybrid cars have improved efficiency by up to 22 km per litre. There is also renewed interest in blending ethanol and biodiesels made from crops with petrol and diesel to reduce exhaust emissions.

However, Africa remains a Continent of concern, with emission standards absent or almost non-existent, says the Year Book. The main improvement here has been the phase-out of leaded petrol, which was effectively achieved at the end of 2005.

The Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2006 is published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The GEO Year Book, including its Feature Focus on Energy and Air Pollution,is being presented to environment ministers attending the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Dubai this week.

The GEO Year Book 2006 is available online from UNEP and can be purchased from www.earthprint.com