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Publication date: 
February 24, 2016

On a sunny, clear day in Washington, DC, it’s easy to forget that much of the world is choking on its own air. A recent press briefing at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reminded us that air pollution kills millions of people, especially in Asia. 

The briefing featured data from the Global Burden of Disease from Major Air Pollution Sources – or GBD MAPS – which is part of the larger GBD Study. Data from GBD 2013 were presented by American, Canadian, Chinese, and Indian researchers.

The results were sobering. More than 5.5 million people died prematurely due to household and outdoor air pollution in 2013. More than half of those deaths occurred in China and India, where tremendous economic growth has led to skyrocketing demands for energy and off-the-charts air pollution. 

While both countries face enormous challenges, the nature of these challenges is different. In China, the biggest contributor by far to poor air quality is coal consumption. An estimated 366,000 deaths were caused by outdoor air pollution due to burning coal in 2013. This situation has become increasingly dire as China’s population has become older and more susceptible to ailments like heart disease, COPD, lung cancer, and stroke. Qiao MA, a PhD student at the School of Environment, Tsinghua University in Beijing, underscored that reductions in coal burning could save many lives.

The sometimes suffocating air of India results from coal burning for industry, but also household air pollution due to biomass cooking and heating, and open burning for agriculture.  At this time of year, New Delhi and Beijing will see daily levels of particulate matter at or above 300 micrograms per cubic meter – that’s 1,200% higher than WHO guidelines.

“The Global Burden of Disease study gives us the most comprehensive, up-to-date view of how air pollution and many other risk factors contribute to diseases and premature deaths around the world – and how that’s changing over time,” said Dr. Jed Blore, lecturer at IHME. “This enables countries to make critical decisions about health policies and investments that are informed by the best available evidence.”

The bad news is that the situation likely will not get better anytime soon. The Chinese and Indian researchers described how the number of premature deaths would change if countries met their current targets to curb emissions. In the Chinese case, this “achievement” of hitting the targets would still cause anywhere from 990,000 to 1.3 million premature deaths in 2030. The Indian example showed a similar upward trend because the impact of restrictions would be outpaced by the rapidly growing demand for electricity combined with an aging population.

The solution according to both researchers: Create more stringent emissions targets. Hitting a very low-carbon target will take huge effort and significant investment; there is nothing easy about this solution. But it is the only way to make progress.

The good news, according to Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, is that we know what works to reduce air pollution and improve health. The US, UK, and other developed countries all struggled decades ago to pursue industrial growth while limiting air pollution. They did this successfully by creating cleaner fuels and vehicles, and controls on coal burning and other combustion at power plants and factories.

Developing countries can do the same. It will be at a price, but leaving air pollution unchecked will be far more costly in terms of healthcare expenses and lives lost. As Dr. Brauer explained, “We know the way forward.”