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Where to find the world's cleanest air

Clean Air
Credit: Clean Air
  • demand for cleaner air.
  • The world’s most polluted air.
  • Clean-air champions.
  • The silent killer.

The demand for cleaner air is being forced up national agendas as a spate of scientific studies warn that pollution could become a global health risk comparable with smoking and obesity.

In many cases, it countries whose economies have expanded most rapidly that are shrouded in some of the world’s most polluted air as they are heavily fossil-fuel dependent.

Meanwhile, China, although not in the top 10 for the highest levels of air pollution according to the World Health Organization and the International Energy Agency, ranks fifth in terms of deaths per capita from polluted air, partly due to the density of its population centres.

Reasons for dirty air vary from country to country and range from having an over-reliance on fossil fuels for power generation and transport to changing wind patterns.

But while identifying the causes of dirty air may be apparent, improving air quality is more of a challenge.

Clean-air champions

Of course many countries are working to dramatically reduce pollution, though they are often those with more developed economies.

China has struggled with very high levels of pollution but has also established itself as the world leader in renewable energy and is making significant strides towards cleaning its air, but clearly there is a long way to go.

Iceland, consistently rated as having some of the world’s cleanest air, runs on geothermal power and is moving from fossil fuels to hydrogen for transport and agriculture.

Others like Canada and Ireland have benefited from large, forested and open areas of land, low population densities and strong winds.

But some states have also acted to reduce the impact of fossil fuels even as demand for energy has grown. Ireland brought in a ban on smoky coal in the 1990s while Canada introduced regulations limiting the amount of coal that could be burnt to produce electricity.

The silent killer

The reason policy makers are so concerned about air pollution is simple – it is making millions of people ill and causing millions of early deaths.

As well as countless individual tragedies, this means added burdens on social care and hospital services.

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills 7 million people annually, or one in eight premature deaths every year.

The WHO says that waste, exposure to bad air near industrial sites, stoves, open fires, kerosene and diesel exacerbate diseases of the poorest in our societies, but can affect more affluent urban areas too.

“This makes it the world’s largest environmental health risk, and among the largest global health risks – comparable with ‘traditional’ health risks such as smoking, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and obesity,” the WHO says.

 

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Most air pollution-related deaths are from heart disease and stroke, followed by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute and chronic respiratory conditions, and cancers.

The air pollutant associated most closely with early deaths and disease is PM2.5 - a tiny particle emitted by diesel vehicles and the combustion of biomass, coal and kerosene.

Facing up to inconvenient truths

While air pollution and climate change are serious problems in their own right, they are also inextricably linked.

The New York Times has reported that studies have found changing weather patterns linked to rising global temperatures were causing a lack of winds across northern China exacerbating a wave of severe pollution that has been blamed for millions of premature deaths. 

The air over China was the stillest it had been in three decades preceding the heavy particulate pollution in January 2013, according to a study in the journal Science Advances.

 

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Source: Shutterstock.com

To make our air cleaner we need to cut fossil fuel use and move to more renewable energy sources, but the world is still dependent on fossil fuels and is likely to remain so for some time.

While China and India are committing more money to renewable resources, they are still heavily committed to carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide producing fuels, and the United States under President Donald Trump has pulled back from the UN Paris Climate Change Agreement.

But even before that, these top three coal-consuming countries were expected to account for around 70% of the world’s coal consumption from 2015 to 2040.

It is clear that the role for policy makers, in debates and meetings at events like the UN Climate Change Conference and the World Government Summit, is to positively influence others to fight climate change and battle for improved air quality.

These are matters that require a whole-world response and require leaders to have agreed, joined-up thinking if they are to take positive steps.

The world, meanwhile, is holding its breath.