Why the global air pollution crisis won’t simply blow over

Written by Matthew Hogarth

Recently, New Delhi became the latest city to be placed in the global media spotlight for its air quality issues. With concentrations of the most harmful ‘PM2.5’ particles at over 15 times the safe level, the Indian capital became the temporary face of a problem affecting 98% of cities in the developing world. 

Deaths attributed to toxic outdoor air are at least 3 million each year (more than malaria and HIV combined) and are projected to rise to between 6 and 9 million by 2060.  Evidence of the pernicious effects of exposure, even at the comparatively low levels found in many developed countries, continues to grow.

At the same time, national governments are in a state of inertia, even in the face of rising public anger. While China has reduced emissions of some pollutants, average exposure among its people shows no sign of declining. So why is this problem so intractable? The answer lies in its economic roots, and the failure our system to allocate resources effectively.

Since air is a shared resource owned by everyone collectively, individuals can use it up without paying. Around Delhi, this happens in a multitude of ways, from Punjabi farmers burning their land after harvest, to Gurgaon office workers driving to the cinema after work. The costs of all this activity- poorer health, reduced productivity, lower crop yields, reduced biodiversity- are paid by society as a whole. Economic markets, left to their own devices, create more pollution than is desirable.

Among economists, it is widely accepted that government intervention is necessary in these situations and that the problem can be corrected through direct regulation, taxes or permit schemes. Usually, this means finding an “acceptable” level of pollution, a point where the benefits to individuals from having cheaper energy or an extra car still outweigh the costs of more toxic air.

Underpinning this is the idea that development and the environment are diametrically opposed and that one must be sacrificed for the gain of the other. In reality, they are often not in competition and, in most cases, are complementary. What use is there in having extra leisure time when being outside does more harm than good? What value in a pollution-dispersing helicopter if it can’t take off due to poor visibility? The fruits of economic development are easily soured by unclean air (almost literally).

Even if we accept that there is some degree of trade off needed to help the world’s poorest people, there is the question of the ‘right’ level of pollution. This means calculating the total costs and benefits of more emissions: a near-impossible task. While health effects and productivity implications can be measured relatively easily, the impact of dangerous air on broader wellbeing is much more tricky to find. Studies to assess people’s willingness to pay for cleaner air are compromised by the ever-evolving literature on pollution harm. Accompanying this is the tendency for people to ignore an often invisible threat and an unwillingness to contribute to improvements unless others do so too. Impacts of pollution on plants and animals are hardly ever counted in the valuation process. With the true costs of air pollution so obscured, incentives to bring levels down are insufficient.

Allied to this is the pervasive idea that, as countries get richer, markets automatically adjust to make polluting activities more expensive because, among other reasons, richer people have more to spend on the luxury of clean air. The implication is that developing countries must go through a period of heavy pollution in order to reach a future clean state.

Evidence for the theory is highly contested and the unequal distribution of harmful effects mean that, even when average levels go down, the poorest groups in society are still likely to continue to suffer.

So how can real change happen? Studies have shown that meaningful action is actually more associated with increased power and participation rather than income. Additionally, when people are more aware of the presence of pollution and its effects, they are more likely to change their own behaviour and to influence government policy.

This gives weight to efforts by artists and academics in developed countries to make pollution more visible. Even better are anti-pollution initiatives that allow communities to participate in air quality measurement, since participation creates empowerment. In the absence of local powers to curb emissions, direct action may be effective.

As air quality readings in Delhi and across the world continue to show, markets are ineffective and governments are complacent where air pollution is concerned. The demand for clean air must come from the bottom up

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