Over eight million deaths a year. Higher rates of kidney disease, diabetes and strokes. Increased risk of lung and heart diseases, dementia and chronic illnesses that can begin in the womb and last a lifetime.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls this a “silent public health emergency”. It’s not obesity, tobacco, sugar, alcohol or a sedentary lifestyle—but the air we breathe.
Over 90 percent of the world’s population live in places where air pollution is above WHO guidelines. Scientific evidence is revealing the true impact of air pollution faster than measures are being taken to tackle it.
But the pollution isn’t natural. For instance, tiny particles—known as PM2.5—are one of the main causes of respiratory disease. They can enter the lungs, brain and bloodstream.
Most are created by burning fossil fuels or wood for driving, heating, power plants and industry.
One study released earlier this month said air pollution kills more people than smoking.
Co-author Joe Lelieveld said, “Since most of the particulate matter and other air pollutants in Europe come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources of generating energy urgently.”
Children are some of the most vulnerable. In congested cities pollution can reach a foetus in a womb and contribute it to be being born underweight.
A 2017 study revealed that air pollution significantly increases the risk of low birth weight.
Research leader Mireille Toledano said this increases the risk of infant death but also “predicts lifelong risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and so on”.
“You are setting in stone the whole trajectory of lifelong chronic illness,” she said.
Children’s bodies are still growing and their developing immune systems make them more vulnerable to infection. Air pollution contributes to poorer cognitive development and lung function. Almost 700,000 children under five die every year as a result of air pollution. For millions more, their life-long health suffers.
In the poorer countries, 98 percent of children under five are exposed to levels of air pollution above WHO limits.
A 2018 United Nations report found that poor air quality is leading to higher death rates among children in their first year of life.
In Britain, the Tories have been taken to court three times over their “clean air policy”.
It’s not just fumes from traffic. Sulphur dioxide, another major pollutant, is released by airplane and ship fumes. Wood, coal and solid fuel fires in the home generate around 40 percent of total PM2.5.
Worries about air pollution are nothing new. In November 1948 London was engulfed in a dense smog that lasted six days and caused the city to grind to a halt.
So what’s the pollution solution? For some it lies in restricting traffic, more electric car charging points, and building pavements and bike lanes.
For others it’s about mitigating the effects by not going out at certain parts of the day or wearing a protection mask.
The WHO’s Dr Ghebreyesus described a “smog of complacency that pervaded the planet”. “No one rich or poor, can escape air pollution,” he said.
change is severely limited under capitalism because the bosses’ priority is to protect their profits. We need to scrap capitalism so we can breathe freely.
But it doesn’t affect rich and poor equally. In Australia, 90 percent of the burden of air pollution falls on low to middle income households and only 0.1 percent of aid pollution falls on the highest income families.
And most of the worst-polluted cities are in the poorest areas.
There are ways to tackle air pollution in the here and now. But it won’t happen just because enough scientific reports expose the dangers.
It won’t come from the bosses who pollute our world or the British state—unless ordinary people force them to act. Changes in the way society is run could make a big difference.
Governments could wrestle train and bus firms out of the hands of billionaire owners. Instead of hiking fares and cutting services, we could have a properly-run and funded transport system.
And the car workers at Honda and other firms currently facing the sack could help to produce it.
Filtration systems could be fit to factories to cut their emissions. We could increase the use of clean energy with a view to ending fossil fuel burning entirely.
More trees, parks and green spaces could be created in highly congested areas, to ease the worst pollution.
But change is severely limited under capitalism because the bosses’ priority is to protect their profits. We need to scrap capitalism so we can breathe freely.
Even under capitalism, a little change is possible
Air pollution is a global problem. It is the result of industrialisation—which has occurred in different countries at different times.
Today firms in the West have “outsourced” much of their dirty manufacturing elsewhere to cut costs. This helps the West to appear cleaner while poorer economies are still industrialising.
Every city in the Middle East and Africa exceeded the WHO air pollution guidelines, as well as
99 percent of cities in south Asia and 89 percent in East Asia.
India has 22 of the 30 worst polluted cities.
Governments have been slow to tackle air pollution. But changes are possible even under capitalism that can make a difference.
For instance, China is hugely polluted—but massive government investment is starting to have an impact.
In Beijing, pollution fell by a third after it declared a “war on pollution”. Sulphur dioxide in the city was reduced by 70 percent and particle pollution by 36 percent in just four years.
The city has spent £2 billion on an investment programme. It has scrapped old vehicles, and fitted coal-powered industry and power stations with filtration systems.
In China’s 62 other monitored stations, pollution dropped by an average of 30 percent between 2013 and 2016.
This month, the South Korean national assembly passed a raft of emergency bills to tackle the “social disaster” of air pollution.
Much of the country has been blanketed in a fine dust and seven major cities suffered record-high concentrations of PM2.5 particles.
In Seoul, 15 motorways have been demolished, and bus lanes and a new river put in their place.
In Paris, France, all vehicles have a “Crit’ Air” rating—electric vehicles are ranked 1 and old diesel cars motorbikes and lorries are 6.
The city is incrementally banning lower-ranking vehicles from entering on weekdays between 8am-8pm.
“Crit’ Air 5” vehicles joined the ban in 2017. It cut traffic by only 3 percent but PM2.5 fell by 11 percent.
Many major cities operate some form of driving restrictions, often meaning car-owners can only use their vehicles on alternate days. But that can lead to people buying a second car—usually cheap and polluting.
In London the “Ultra Low Emission Zone” is set to hit central London streets from next week.
It will charge £12.50 for cars and £100 for lorries and buses that don’t meet the standards for low emissions.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said it will cut emissions by as much as 45 percent.
It comes among other measures such as green screens, indoor air filters, restricted road usage outside school entrances, upgrading boilers, tackling engine idling and promoting walking and cycling.
Slam the brakes on car production
As concern over air pollution grew, car manufacturers adjusted their models. But instead of producing energy efficient cars, they poured resources into building models that cheat emissions tests.
These appeared to be low emission in a test environment. But in a real-world situation, they belched out more pollution than gas fuelled cars.
A culture of backroom deals cooked up between national governments and powerful car bosses facilitated the deception.
For instance, in 2013 the German government offered to support Britain to stop a European Union cap on bankers’ bonuses.
But that support only came if the British state backed Germany in axing a proposed tightening up of car regulations.