LONDON • Premature deaths from air pollution will continue to rise all the way to 2040 unless changes are made to the way the world produces and uses energy, says the International Energy Agency (IEA) in a special report released yesterday.
Around 6.5 million deaths globally are attributed each year to poor air quality inside and outside, making it the world's fourth-largest threat to human health, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking.
Harmful pollutants such as particulate matter - which can contain acids, metals, soil and dust particles - sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides are responsible for the most widespread effects of air pollution.
Tiny particulate matter can cause lung cancer, strokes and heart disease over the long term, as well as trigger symptoms such as heart attacks that kill more rapidly.
The release of these pollutants is mainly due to unregulated or inefficient energy production and use.
The IEA, an energy security group based in Paris and made up of 29 member countries, is linked with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The air pollution study is the first for the agency, which is expanding its mission under executive director Fatih Birol.
Without action, the report says, premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution will increase to 4.5 million in 2040, from around three million currently. Premature deaths due to household air pollution, however, should fall to 2.9 million from 3.5 million.
Asia will account for almost 90 per cent of the rise in deaths.
Environmental issues, Dr Birol said last Friday, are very important to emerging economies like India and China, whose cities are often plagued by choking smog.
Helping these countries solve problems through increasing energy efficiency or filtering out pollutants can lead to progress on climate change goals.
We need to make these countries "understand that their problems are our problems", Dr Birol said.
Even though global emissions are forecast to decline overall to 2040, existing and planned energy policies will not be enough to improve air quality, the IEA report says.
"Without changes to the way that the world produces and uses energy, the ruinous toll from air pollution on human life is set to rise".
Harmful greenhouse gas emissions should continue to fall in industrialised countries and recent signs of decline in China should continue, but emissions are set to rise in India, South-east Asia and Africa as energy demand growth dwarfs efforts to improve air quality.
However, cleaner air can come about through new energy and air quality policies such as access to clean cooking stoves and fuels to replace inefficient biomass stoves; strictly enforced emissions standards for road transport; controlling emissions and switching fuels in the power sector; and more energy efficiency in industry.
These measures could ensure global emissions of particulate matter fall by 7 per cent, sulphur dioxide by 20 per cent and nitrogen oxides by 10 per cent to 2040. As a result, premature deaths from outdoor pollution would fall to 2.8 million in 2040 and from household air pollution to 1.3 million, the report says.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES