“Clean air is a basic human right that most of the world’s population lacks.”

That is the stark assessment from Fatih Birol, executive director at the International Energy Agency (IEA). The statement may seem like a bit of a departure from the group’s normal work of tracking renewable energy developments around the world, but increasingly, the connections between air quality and energy are being made on a global scale.

On June 27, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report indicating air pollution is behind 6.5 million deaths each year. That makes air pollution the fourth-largest human health concern, behind blood pressure, diet, and smoking. If air pollution is not curbed, the death toll is expected to rise significantly in coming years.


The Problem: Emissions from Energy

Air pollution comes primarily from the energy industry; our energy choices are directly linked to air quality and public health. Energy production and use are responsible for 85 percent of particulate matter emissions. Particulate matter affects cardiac and respiratory systems, causing added risk for those who already have heart or lung disease. Children and the elderly are also especially vulnerable.

Energy industry emissions are also responsible for nearly all of the sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrous oxides (NOx) found in the atmosphere. Sulfur oxides are harmful to the respiratory system and can react in the atmosphere to form particulate matter. Nitrous oxides also affect the respiratory system, and can react to form surface ozone, which has negative health effects. Again, children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions like asthma are especially vulnerable.

These harmful emissions can come from sources like power plants and cars as well as from cooking fuel. Nearly 2.7 billion people globally rely on inefficient, dirty stoves to burn wood, charcoal, or other traditional biomass for their cooking needs, which can significantly deteriorate local air quality.

While developed countries are seeing improvements in air quality due to tighter air quality regulations, conditions in emerging countries are expected to get worse before they get better. Parts of Asia and Africa are areas of particular concern, as environmental regulations in these regions are not keeping up with increasing demands for energy. For example, Asia is expected to account for nearly 90 percent of the projected increase in outdoor air pollution related deaths by 2040.


The Consequences: Impacts on Public Health

The 6.5 million annual deaths caused by air pollution translate to a staggering 18,000 each day, or one in nine out of all deaths globally. These mortalities can be divided into 3 million from outdoor pollution and 3.5 million from indoor pollution. By 2040, outdoor-related deaths are expected to rise to 4.5 million, assuming no action is taken on air quality. However, the indoor-related deaths, which are connected with poverty and lack of energy access, are projected to decrease to 3 million, as increased energy access reduces reliance on dirty cook stoves.

The high concentration of emissions from power and transportation in cities makes urban dwellers particularly vulnerable to the health effects of pollution. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80 percent of city dwellers are subject to poor air quality. As population continues to concentrate in cities, urban air quality will continue to deteriorate.

Citizens in Asian countries are particularly at risk. China experiences by far the greatest number of deaths from both indoor and outdoor air pollution—a result of both traditional cooking fuel use in rural areas and rapid expansion of coal-fired electricity. India has the second-highest death toll from air pollutants. While China’s air pollution may decrease in coming years as a result of more stringent environmental standards, India’s pollution is expected to get worse.


Combating Climate Change and Air Pollution Simultaneously

The International Energy Agency recommends relatively low-cost solutions to address the high-stakes problem of air quality. A “Clean Air Scenario” put forward in the report projects that increasing energy investment in key areas such as stricter emissions standards for vehicles and fuel switching, investment in renewables, clean-burning cook stoves and energy efficiency measures would greatly improve air quality. Improving cooking methods alone would make a big difference, preventing 1.6 million deaths annually by 2040. A $4.8 trillion investment in these key areas would prevent 1.7 million outdoor air-pollution-related deaths in 2040.

The top three actions proposed by the plan are 1) setting a long-term standard for air quality, 2) creating policies in the energy sector to meet that goal, and 3) building an effective progress monitoring system.

To achieve the proposed mortality reductions, global pollution controls would have to expand significantly. This would require increasing the share of global combusted energy subject to advanced pollution controls from today’s 45 percent to around 75 percent in 2040, as well as lowering future energy demands overall. Energy efficiency measures will be key in reducing projected demand by 13 percent as suggested in the IEA report.

Importantly, the report argues that economic growth does not need to come at the cost of clean air. IEA believes that the measures in the proposed Clean Air Scenario can be achieved while reducing energy poverty and promoting sustainable growth. Dr. Birol notes, “Modern energy is hugely important, but clean air is our most precious resource.”


Author: Rebecca Chillrud