Top 10 Weather Events of 2016 (#2 Will Surprise You)

The Great Smog of Delhi.

2. Air Pollution in 2016 Likely Killed more than 5 Million and Cost more than $5 Trillion Globally

The deadliest and costliest weather events of 2016 were very likely high pressure systems with light winds and stagnant air that led to lethal build-ups of dangerous air pollutants in Asia. One such event, a severe air pollution episode being called the Great Smog of Delhi, hit the most polluted major city in the world—New Delhi, India—on Nov. 1 - 9, 2016. On Nov. 7, Delhi's levels of the deadliest air pollutant—fine particulate matter (PM 2.5)—hit 999 micrograms per cubic meter, which is 40 times higher than the World Health Organization guideline of 25 micrograms per cubic meter for a 24-hour period. Sustained breathing of air pollution at these levels is like smoking more than two packs of cigarettes per day.

The worst air pollution episode of 2016 in China occurred the week of Dec. 19 when levels of fine particle pollution in Shijiazhuang, capital of northern Hebei province, hit 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter—40 times the WHO standard. According to mashable.com, more than 200 flights were cancelled in Beijing due to smog that week, schools and factories were ordered shut, and 23 cities declared smog red alerts.

Too often, we hear about the costs of air pollution regulations, but nothing on the savings in lives and money that result from breathing clean air. Part of the problem is that quantifying the deaths and damage due to air pollution episodes is difficult. However, there are more than 2,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies linking air pollution to "premature deaths"—mortality caused by air pollution that is only partly attributable to breathing bad air, but that would not have occurred otherwise.

The World Bank estimated in 2016 that premature deaths due to air pollution in 2013 (the most recent year statistics were available) were 5.5 million people, at a cost of more than $5 trillion. The total costs to countries in East and South Asia related to air pollution mortality were about 7.5 percent of GDP, they estimated. Additional health care costs to people who did not die were not considered and neither was pollution damage done to agriculture. Computer modeling by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson in 2016 predicted that the total cost of air pollution globally under a business-as-usual emissions path will reach $23 trillion per year (7.6 percent of global GDP) by 2050.

Figure 2. An irate Linqi resident

Figure 2: Students took exams in an outdoor playground on Dec. 19, 2016 in heavy smog at Linzhou, Anyang, in Central China's Henan Province. The fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) levels were in excess of 500 micrograms per cubic meter, which is 20 times higher than the World Health Organization guideline of 25 micrograms per cubic meter for a 24-hour period. The principal of the school was suspended after a public outcry.

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