Fog in St Giles’, Oxford
The World Health Organisation (WHO) expect poor air quality worldwide to be the leading cause of premature deaths by 2050. They probably look back at the Paris Climate Accord of December 2015 with mixed emotions. First off, replicating the wide consensus about climate change for the effects of air pollution on population health would be a worthy ambition. Then again, they must now look at how recent populist resistance, particularly by the Trump presidency in the US, has set back the cause of legislating against environmental degradation. They might wish for no more horse-trading over whys and wherefores, just consensus on what needs to be done, then getting on with it.
But in seeking agreement on how to improve air quality, WHO do themselves few favours. Their standard parameter of suffering from poor health is the Disability Adjusted Life Year or ‘DALY’, measuring numbers of years lost to ill health, disability or death, against a notional average healthy life expectancy. Not surprisingly, this peasoup of statistical complexity is argued over by medics, demographers and sociologists threatening the capacity to agree anything about how to tackle the poisoning of our lungs.
We all accept the root causes of poor air; most are man made. They include the vastly increased reliance on the internal combustion engine over the last half-century, particularly in rapidly growing economies. But emissions from industrial processes, and urbanisation with its encroachment on previous areas of virgin, or partly domesticated natural vegetation, are just as guilty. Nature adds its own contribution via volcanic emissions and the minority of forest fires not started by man, but largely we are responsible for the deteriorating quality of the air we breathe. We know the causes, so we should be able to identify the solutions to slow and eventually stop, worldwide decline in air quality.
In most developed economies, there are some promising starts. Coal-fired power generation is now a fraction of what it was 30 years ago. Sustainably sourced generation continues to rise as its lifetime and operating costs continue to fall. We still have a way to go on vehicle emissions, but again we've made a start. Old vehicle scrapping schemes, congestion charging and a new wave of road pricing all act to encourage more use of public transport and ultra low emission zones will soon make it too expensive to move freight with anything other than vehicles with the cleanest emissions, if not electric motivation. These measures cannot come soon enough for cities across the developed world where climate warming over the last two decades is exacerbating toxic air quality.
But how can we deliver such improvements to developing economies where the worst air quality deterioration is found? Not, I suggest, by arguing endlessly over the health statistics. We need positive and practical measures on the ground.
Schemes scrapping ageing and inefficient cars for those with more efficient engines would have a major impact in fast developing economies, where reliance on private vehicles is the only solution for the livelihoods of marginally coping communities. A subsidy scheme by motor industry offenders over recent NOx emission cheating, replacing old with new models might be too much to hope for, but consumer loyalty would be engendered worldwide by an international gesture of this sort. VW and others, are you listening?
Greater investment in public transport infrastructure is at last becoming a viable sector for the finance industry, as it seeks out longer term returns for its insurance and pensions customers. Only the most secure covenants are attracting the right quality of project funding capital, but where this ventures into developing economies, it needs underwriting via World Bank and other overseas aid agencies.
Hydrocarbons-fired power generation in, for example China and South East Asia, as already in the west, needs steady replacement by sustainable sources, as already occurring in the west. Those losing jobs in mining and facing the burden of unemployment, could be re-trained to manufacturing jobs in fast-growing renewables. There is ample experience to build on here from across western Europe. Rapidly reducing costs of sustainable energy generation needs importing to economies where they will soon be needed most to compete with continued low labour costs in mining and extraction.
Finally, urban planning has to become a stronger feature of land use management, thus optimising development of previously green space on the edges of towns, and only allowing urbanisation to expand beyond current city limits where take-up of underused space inside the urban envelope is impossible. Effective land use management has a huge if indirect contribution to make to reduce air pollution.
The long-term effects of degraded air are measurable in the treatment of respiratory disorders and associated loss of earnings or death with its associated dependencies from what would otherwise be healthy populations. Society has to develop cross accounting, so that the costs of installing physical infrastructure now, pay for reduced health care later. Only by making such mould-breaking accounting solutions work effectively, will we achieve the benefits of a truly joined-up world economy.
Hugh’s new book is Journeys with Open Eyes, Seeking Empathy with Strangers, £12.98 (i2i Publishing).
Hugh is a graduate of Oxford (St. Johns, 1969). For over for decades he has worked for an array of public and private sector in international urban planning and development.
Photos: Hugh Roberts, and air pollution in Paris and Kuala Lumpur.