The real cost of air pollution

On a particularly smoggy day, it’s not hard to imagine the toll that air pollution takes on our health and lives. But what many don’t realize is that the total impact of air pollution on human life and the global economy may be far more severe than previously thought.

In response to increased demand for data on the human cost of air pollution, IQAir and Greenpeace Southeast Asia have developed a cost estimator that calculates the health and economic costs of air pollution in some of the world’s biggest cities using the IQAir global air quality database.

This estimate is based on an algorithm combining the following data inputs to calculate costs throughout an entire calendar year:

  • real-time data from ground-level air quality sensors managed by the IQAir air quality database, including particulate matter with a diameter size of 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) data (where available)
  • scientific risk models
  • population and health data

The cost estimator can then automatically calculate deaths and economic impact for many of the world’s major cities, some of which regularly appear on IQAir’s Most Polluted Cities ranking.

Mortality and cost estimates are based on the total impact attributable to PM2.5 and NO2 over the preceding 365 days, apportioned day by day according to daily recorded pollutant levels. Inclusion of NO2 is dependent on data availability.

2020: Over 160,000deaths in top 5 cities

In 2020, our counter provided an alarming estimate of the cost of air pollution for the world’s top five most populous cities for the entire year in terms of lives and productivity lost:1

  • Tokyo, Japan: 40,000 deaths, $43 billion U.S. dollars (USD) (population: 37,000,000)
  • New Delhi, India: 54,000 deaths, $8.1billion USD (population: 30,000,000)
  • Shanghai, China: 39,000 deaths, $19billion USD (population: 27,100,000)
  • Sao Paulo, Brazil: 15,000 deaths, $7.8 billion USD (population: 22,000,000)
  • Mexico City, Mexico: 15,000 deaths, $7billion USD (population: 21,800,000)

Total Deaths: 163,000
Total Cost: $85.1billion USD

That’s over 160,000 lives and $85.1billion USD lost in 2020 alone – in only five cities. And those five cities represent only 1.7% of the world population.2

In the top five most populous cities alone, air pollution caused over 160,000 deaths and cost $85.1billion USD during 2020 – and those five cities represent only 1.7% of the world population.

The real cost of air pollution

In a single year, major cities around the world lost hundreds of thousands of lives and well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Data from 2021 already suggests that this alarming trend will continue.

Try to imagine what those numbers look like for a world of nearly 8 billion people. It leaves us heavy-hearted. And when it comes to fighting against air pollution, knowledge is power. Data on lives and dollars lost is one of the most powerful tools we have to hold polluters and policy makers to account and change the air pollution story forever.

That’s why IQAir and Greenpeace Southeast Asia partnered to produce the Cost of Air Pollution Counter.

The Cost of Air Pollution Counter uses the same methodology as a 2020 report by Greenpeace that calculated shocking estimates of the costs of using of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas:3

  • 4.5 million premature deaths each year due to air pollution from fossil fuels
  • US $8 billion (3.3% of the world’s total gross domestic product or GDP) lost each dayfrom reduced life expectancy, premature birth, illnesses that result in hospital visits and missed work, and financial burdens resulting from illnesses
  • 40,000 deaths of children under five every year from PM2.5 exposure from fossil fuels
  • 1.8 billion days of work lost from illnesses related to PM2.5from fossil fuels, resulting in economic losses of US$101 billion
Fossil fuels cause 4.5 million premature deaths each year, cost $8 billion every day, cause 40,000 deaths of children younger than 5, and resulted in 1.8 billion days of work lost from illnesses related to PM2.5.

The cost of reducing air pollution

The cost of reducing air pollution by switching from polluting fuels like coal, oil, and gas to zero-emissions alternative energy sources like wind and solar may seem high. But the health costs and economic costs of air pollution are clearly much higher – and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are actually increasingly cheaper than polluting fossil fuels.4

The cost of reducing air pollution may seem high. But the health costs and economic costs of air pollution are clearly much higher.

If nothing changes, the costs will continue to mount as the world population grows and climate change poses new risks that will make global capitalism in its current form untenable.

The solutions to the global air pollution problem are in front of us.

Renewable energy applications like wind farms and solar panels have already experienced immense growth and investment over the past decade.

In the U.S. alone, renewable energy use has grown by 100% since 2000, comprising 17% of net electricity use in 2018.5 Furthermore, renewable energy sources are projected to grow by at least 7% in the coming year and account for nearly 90% of the total increase in global power capacity worldwide, with roughly 150% growth projected from 2010 to 2025 (see Figure 1).6

Projected growth in renewable energy sources

Figure 1: Projected growth in renewable energy sources, 2010-2025 (Source: International Energy Agency).

The takeaway

Deaths from air pollution showed alarming trends in 2020 and continue to reflect these trends in 2021.

The death toll may be even higher given the lack of air quality data coverage across large swathes of the world, with the estimated death toll thought to be over 500,000 as more cities are accounted for in the algorithm.

Fortunately, investment in renewable energy is helping gradually replace deadly and expensive fossil fuels with cheaper, sustainable sources of wind, solar, and other renewables. This means that we are moving in the right direction, but still have a long way to go.

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