Air pollution is often seen as a local problem requiring local and regional solutions. Karachi, London, Lagos, Mexico City and Paris are just a few of the world’s cities grappling with poor air quality. With city-dwellers increasingly being asked to ditch the car – especially if it’s diesel – and use greener modes of transport, it’s easy to forget that air is also mobile. As a result, there’s very little attention being paid to the impact of cross-border air pollution on human health and well-being.
Globally, air pollution caused by microscopic fine particles (PM₂.₅) kills 3.5m people each year. These particles can easily enter the respiratory tract. They rank fifth worldwide among all risks to health after high blood pressure, smoking and diet. Breathing filthy air can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and affect mental health. And it is the vulnerable in society who suffer the most, with 300m children currently breathing in toxic air. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, together with second-hand smoke, causes 570,000 deaths in children under five years of age each year, due to respiratory infections such as pneumonia.
The movement of air pollutants from transport and agricultural activities in one country can affect the air quality in another. Such as the smoke from Indonesian forest fires which has caused a toxic haze to descend over parts of Malaysia and Singapore. Another example is the atmospheric brown cloud – a transnational air pollution phenomenon which contains aerosols such as soot and dust that poses risks to human health and food security, especially in Asia.
Cross-border air pollution has been an issue for some time: in the 1970-80s, the UK was nicknamed the “dirty man of Europe” for belching out industrial sulphur emissions, which contributed to acid rain in Europe – a reputation that the Greens fear will be regained after Brexit.
But it’s only recently that the scale of the air pollution effects of international trade has been assessed, with one study suggesting that around 400,000 premature deaths occurred in 2007 in a different region of the world than the one in which the air pollutants were emitted.
Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 22% (762,400) of air pollution-related deaths worldwide. In particular, Chinese particle emissions were responsible for 64,800 premature deaths in other regions, including over 3,000 deaths in Western Europe and the US. By contrast, Chinese products bought in Western Europe and the US are linked to over 100,000 deaths in China in one year.
International trade has seen many developed countries transferring their manufacturing abroad, in order to take advantage of cheap labour and lax environmental standards in often less wealthy nations. As a result, air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, has effectively been exported to developing countries.
Making the switch
So, while murky grey images of smog smothered Beijing or New Delhi may prompt others to ask why they don’t clean up their act, it’s important to remember that these cities are shouldering an enormous manufacturing burden, as much of the world’s goods and services are outsourced to China and India.
There is now a need for governments to switch from calculating greenhouse gas emissions based on production to one based on consumption of goods and services. This has important implications for global climate and air mitigation policies because as much as 20% to 25% of overall carbon dioxide emissions come from the production of goods and services which are traded internationally.
Although there has been success in achieving better air quality over the past the six decades, this doesn’t erase the need to face up to big global environment challenges. Cities are responsible for around 70% of global greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long term, short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon (a primary part of particulate matter), methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near-term. Local action, such as banning diesel cars, addresses both air and climate pollutants. This can achieve immediate effects by reducing near-term warming and improving air quality levels.
There are several international conventions to regulate air pollution and related issues. But for now, there’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere. This has led to calls for a new Law of the Atmosphere to provide effective cooperation on air pollution and climate change at regional and global scales. As it stands, the likelihood of such a law gaining support is low, given the climate change scepticism exhibited by powerful world leaders such as presidents Trump and Putin.
Everyone has the right to clean air. But air pollution requires no visas, and its devastating impact can be felt far from the source. No longer can the leaders of developed nations shy away from the fact that their citizens’ consumption and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on people in others part of the world. As consumers, we have the power and the responsibility to demand better environmental and social standards – so we can all breathe life, wherever we live.