New Data Shows The Secret To Long Life — Don’t Breathe Dirty Air!

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Michael Greenstone, a professor at the University of Chicago, and his colleagues have developed the Air Quality Life Index, which converts air pollution levels into their impact on life expectancy. He tells The Guardian the average global citizen loses 2.2 years of life because of today’s levels of air pollution, which adds up to a total of 17 billion lost years.

“What else on the planet is causing people to lose 17 billion years of life? Furthermore, we’re not just letting it happen, we’re actually causing it. The most striking thing is that there are big countries where, effectively, a combination of the government and [societal] norms are choosing to allow people to live really dramatically shorter and sicker lives.” He acknowledges that switching to cleaner energy and enforcing air quality measures on existing power plants have cut pollution in many countries around the world.

Pollution & Climate Change

The executive summary of the the latest AQLI study says, “[A]ir pollution is not only a global challenge, but is also intertwined with climate change. Both challenges are primarily caused by the same culprit: fossil fuel emissions from power plants, vehicles and other industrial sources. More than ever before, the world urgently needs strong policies to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.”

The report estimates the number of additional years of life people would gain if air pollution levels in their country were reduced to World Health Organization guidelines. In India, that figure is 5.9 years. In the north of that nation, 480 million people breathe pollution that is 10 times higher than elsewhere in the world. Cutting pollution would add 5.4 years in Bangladesh and Nepal, and 3.9 years in Pakistan.

In central and west Africa, the impacts of particulate pollution on life expectancy are comparable to HIV/Aids and malaria but receive far less attention. For example, the average person in the Niger delta stands to lose nearly six years of life, with 3.4 years lost by the average Nigerian.

Fossil Fuels Are The Culprit

“Coal is the source of the problem in most parts of the world,” says Greenstone. “If these [health] costs were embedded in prices, coal would be uncompetitive in almost all parts of the world.” Unnatural gas is significantly less polluting than coal but burning it still drives global heating. Christiana Figueres, former UN climate chief, said on Sunday: “Let’s be clear, gas is not an alternative to coal and nor is it a transition fuel. Investments in new gas must stop immediately if carbon neutrality is to be reached by 2050.”

The AQLI report is based on research comparing the death rates of people living in places with more and less pollution. The analysis is based on pollution from fine particulate material, with primarily affects heart and lung function. The estimates of air pollution around the world were derived from satellite data at 3.7 mile (6 km) resolution.

“During a truly unprecedented year [due to the Covid pandemic] where some people accustomed to breathing dirty air experienced clean air and others accustomed to clean air saw their air dirty, it became acutely apparent the important role policy has played and could play in reducing fossil fuels that contribute both to local air pollution and climate change,” says Greenstone. It is perhaps ironic that he is the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago, where the theory that the world can and should experience unlimited financial growth  in perpetuity was born and nurtured. Karma truly is a bitch. “The AQLI demonstrates the benefits these policies could bring to improve our health and lengthen our lives.”

Ken Lee, the director of the AQLI, says, “The events of the past year remind us that air pollution is not a problem that developing countries alone must solve. Fossil fuel driven air pollution is a global problem that requires strong policies at every front, including from the world climate negotiators who are meeting in the coming months.” (He’s talking about the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow where world leaders will gather to piously preen, puff, promise, and prevaricate.) The AQLI’s latest data provides leaders and citizens alike with the justification for strong clean air policies in the form of longer lives.”

AQLI claims China is an important model that shows how policy can produce sharp reductions in pollution quickly. Since the country began its “war against pollution” in 2013, China has reduced its particulate pollution by 29% and accounting for up three-quarters of the reductions in air pollution around the world. As a result, China’s people have added about 1.5 years onto their lives, assuming those reductions are sustained. To put China’s success into context, it took several decades and recessions for the United States and Europe to achieve the same pollution reductions that China was able to accomplish in 6 years. China’s success demonstrates that progress is possible, even in the world’s most polluted countries, AQLI says.

Deadlier Than Warfare

Its latest report says, “The AQLI data is yet another warning that the stakes are higher than ever to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Working unseen inside the human body, the deadly effects of [fine particulate matter] on the heart, lungs, and other systems have a more devastating impact on life expectancy than communicable diseases like tuberculosis, behavioral killers like cigarette smoking, and even war. (emphasis added.) Without strong policies to reduce fossil fuels and bring global air pollution levels down to meet the WHO guideline, billions of life-years will be lost.”

It adds, “At the same time, climate induced wildfires will only worsen air pollution, along with other dire climate consequences.” For those living in North America, where massive forest fires have been raging for months in the Pacific Northwest, those towering clouds that have been turning your sunsets red all summer are also assaulting your lungs with fine particulate matter that is shortening your lives — something to keep in mind while taking selfies at sundown to share on Fakebook. The inability of humans to recognize risks that are literally all around them is truly mindbending.

Fighting Ignorance, One Song At A Time

Way back on the last century, a Harvard math professor decided on a career in musical satire. His name was Tom Lehrer and his instrument of choice was the piano, which he referred to as an “88 string guitar.” In the age of protest music, it was an apt analogy.

Lehrer liked to sing a song he modestly called “Pollution.” Here’s a snippet: “Pollution, pollution! Wear a gas mask and a veil. Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale! So go to the city. See the crazy people there. Like lambs to the slaughter, they’re drinking the water and breathing [cough] the air!”

Like all good satirists, his message was way ahead of its time, and like all good satire, the message is deadly serious. We ignore it at our peril.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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