Air Pollution Kills 7 Million a Year, Mostly in Poorer Countries
The latest World Health Organization (WHO) air quality report revealed that air pollution is as much a global public health threat as ever, killing seven million people every year, a number that study authors told The Guardian is distressingly close to 2016's assessment.
"There are cities and regions where improvement is happening," report author Sophie Gumy told The Guardian. "But even if things have started to move, they aren't moving quickly enough. Seven million deaths is a totally unacceptable figure. The fact that 92% [of people] are still breathing unacceptable air is the news. Pollution remains at dangerously high levels," she said.
The report, based on what the WHO claims is the most comprehensive air pollution database in the world, was released Tuesday, CNN reported. The report covers data from 108 countries and 4,300 cities.
"No doubt that air pollution represents today not only the biggest environmental risk for health, but I will clearly say that this is a major, major challenge for public health at the moment and probably one of the biggest ones we are contemplating," director of the WHO's Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health Dr. Maria Neira told CNN.
The report found that air pollution from cars, factories and wood fires accounts for 43 percent of chronic lung-disease deaths, 29 percent of lung cancer deaths and 25 percent of deaths from strokes and heart attacks, The Guardian reported. More than 90 percent of those deaths were in poorer countries in Africa and Asia.
In fact, the recent report marks the first time the WHO has included comparisons to past years, revealing that the pollution gap between rich and poor countries is growing.
More than 61 percent of cities in Europe and 57 percent of cities in the Americas saw a fall in particulate matter levels between 2010 and 2016; on the other hand, air quality deteriorated by 70 percent in poorer cities in south and southeast Asia, The Guardian reported.
According to The Guardian, large cities with the worst pollution were, in order, Delhi, Cairo, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Mumbai and Beijing. Delhi and Cairo had PM10 particulate matter levels 10 times worse than WHO guidelines while Dhaka, Mumbai and Beijing had levels that eclipsed safety limits by a factor of five.
The report's authors praised the progress that China had made in its "war on pollution."
"One of the reasons for that, is the health argument is strongly presented and citizens felt the link between air pollution and their own health," Neira told The Guardian. "We'd like to see the same movement now in India, which is a country of particular concern."
In the U.S., Los Angeles and Indianapolis were particularly polluted, while Honolulu was a large U.S. city with relatively clean air, CNN reported.
95% of World's Population Breathes Unsafe Air https://t.co/0NVplWFhsS @Greenpeace @ScienceNewsOrg— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1524001808.0
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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