, 6.1 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).
Air pollution is also deadly, causing or contributing to heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases and killing an estimated seven million people every year – with about 95 percent of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. COVID-19 is only making matters worse, with research finding links between air pollution and COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
More than 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where pollution levels exceed World Health Organization guidelines. Exposure to PM2.5, fine inhalable aerosol particles that are harmful to human health, is five to ten times higher in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa than in North America.
As such, tackling air pollution represents an obvious component of the World Bank’s mission to eradicate poverty and promote shared prosperity. What is less obvious, however, is what, exactly, can be done to address this problem.
In recognition of the second annual United Nations International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, we are calling on policymakers and development partners to answer this call by considering three priorities that can help clear the air and save lives.
1. Improve availability of data on air quality
Recent research shows that satellite technology cannot replace monitors on the ground in low- and middle-income countries.Ground-level monitors represent a key instrument in this process. Unfortunately, access to these differs greatly across the world. In response to this challenge, the World Bank supports the expansion of ground-level monitoring in underserved regions.
2. Prioritize key sources of air pollution, notably coal-fired power plants and diesel-fueled vehicles
Building on the need to collect data, we also need to ensure that this data is utilized to underpin actions that can be taken to prioritize key sources of air pollution. Recent World Bank research on the health effects of different sources and chemical compositions of air pollution concluded that emissions from coal-fired power plants and diesel vehicles are particularly toxic to humans and are most consistently associated with heart attacks.
3. Address air pollution across boundaries.
Air pollution does not respect jurisdictional boundaries, making the need for regional cooperation on this issue essential. Although air pollution has typically been considered a problem of cities and urban areas, we now know from our work in China and India that pollutants outside of city lines can also contribute to poor urban air quality.
As countries continue to grapple with the health, social, and economic costs of air pollution, they would be wise to take a broad and inclusive approach to these challenges – focusing on the abovementioned areas, as well as other priority sectors and actions.
For example, over the last five decades the World Bank has provided nearly $4.4 billion in financing to the Mexico City Metropolitan Area for projects spanning air quality management, transportation, energy, and other sectors – contributing to decreases in particulate matter pollution by more than 70% during this period.
Exacerbating these challenges is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-present reminders of climate change. However, by taking steps to both identify the problems of air pollution as well as solutions to these problems, countries can go a long way toward overcoming all of these collective challenges – which offers the very tangible benefit of improving the health of their people, the strength of their economies, and the overall condition of planet Earth.