I thought the debate on Diwali, fireworks and its effects on religious sentiments and the planet was slowly ending with people were going back to work and starting a new routine. Just as the media cycle on this subject was ending, the Lancet Commission on pollution and health report was released, igniting the debate on pollution all over again!
The summary from the Lancet is quite grim; Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today. Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015-16% of all deaths worldwide-three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four.
As a climate leader, I have been highlighting the effects of burning fossil fuels on global warming, which then leads to climate change. This increases the frequency and severity of extreme climate events, like storms because more than 90% of the heat is absorbed by the oceans, and these warm waters act as fuel for storms and makes them mega storms bigger. It also results in severe drought, as the same heat that evaporates more water from the oceans, also pulls moisture even more quickly from the soil, causing longer and deeper droughts. Continued burning of fossil fuels, is causing more problems than what this planet can handle.
But more importantly, as the Lance report continues, the fossil fuels that are burnt to generate electricity, not only causes global warming and climate change, but also releases particulate matter into the air that is so fine that we breathe it in and it starts to choke our lungs after prolonged exposure. It accounts for 85% of airborne particulate pollution and for almost all pollution by oxides of sulphur and nitrogen. Fuel combustion is also a major source of the greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants that drive climate change. Key emitters of carbon dioxide, such as electricity-generating plants, chemical manufacturing facilities, mining operations, deforestation, and petroleum-powered vehicles, are also major sources of pollution. Coal is the world's most polluting fossil fuel, and coal combustion is an important cause of both pollution and climate change.
While pollution is a great leveller - it is the same air that the rich and the poor breathe, we now know that it sadly disproportionately kills the poor and the vulnerable. Nearly 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries and, in countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalised. Although more than 70% of the diseases caused by pollution are non-communicable diseases, it causes productivity losses that reduce gross domestic product in low-income to middle-income countries by up to 2% per year and results in health-care costs that are responsible for 1·7% of annual health spending in high-income countries and for up to 7% of health spending in middle-income countries that are heavily polluted and rapidly developing.
The good news is that much pollution can be eliminated, and there are precedents from the developing world. When they enacted legislation, and issued regulations mandating clean air and clean water, it has not only reduced deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease but have also yielded substantial economic gains. In the USA, an estimated US$30 in benefits has been returned to the economy for every dollar invested in air pollution control since 1970, which is an aggregate benefit of $1·5 trillion against an investment of $65 billion. Similarly, the removal of lead from gasoline has returned an estimated $200 billion to the US economy each year since 1980, an aggregate benefit to-date of over $6 trillion through the increased cognitive function and enhanced economic productivity of generations of children exposed since birth to only low amounts of lead.
All this leads to one question that we need to ask ourselves. Do we still want to debate pollution and all the factors that contribute to pollution, or do we want to move forward and wage a holy war against it?
The writer is an author, speaker, trainer, consultant, an entrepreneur and an expert in applied sustainability.