India and China have dominated the global air pollution discourse in the last decade. China for drastically reducing its pollution levels since 2013, and India for its infamous winter pollution episodes.

While South Asian countries, including India, are dealing with the highest health burdens of air pollution— the truth is that 99 percent of the world’s population breathes air that the World Health Organisation (WHO) deems unsafe.

According to the Air Quality Life Index, air pollution is taking off two years from people’s lives across the globe. Recent estimates from the Global Burden of Disease study indicate that particulate matter air pollution was the leading contributor to the global disease burden in 2021. With emerging scientific and epidemiological evidence, the list of diseases that air pollution triggers continues to grow.

But the problem is not limited to air pollution universally affecting health. In our increasingly unequal societies in which almost everything is distributed according to hierarchies of class, caste, gender, race and so on, air pollution is no exception.

There is now considerable evidence coming in from all over the world that underprivileged communities are more vulnerable to air pollution and suffer disproportionately from its deleterious consequences. Air pollution is not just affecting the already-disadvantaged more but also exacerbating existing inequalities.

While South Asian countries, including India, are dealing with the highest health burdens of air pollution— the truth is that 99 percent of the world’s population breathes air that the World Health Organisation (WHO) deems unsafe.

And yet, or maybe because of this, air pollution continues to struggle to occupy a more prominent place in the multilateral agenda, local political priorities and collective consciousness of citizens.

In this article, I will not dwell on catastrophic air pollution numbers or the causes of air pollution. Instead, I will attempt to present an alternative framing to discuss air pollution— one that hopefully helps us see beyond air pollution as merely an environmental issue solvable by growing trees.

We need to understand that air pollution is also an issue of justice. And, if solved, it can be a lever for enabling not just a cleaner but also a more equal world.

How are air pollution and inequality linked?

Air pollution is emerging as one of the starkest ways in which global inequality is manifesting itself. Here, I present four arguments to illustrate this.

First, as mentioned earlier, air pollution is cutting short people’s lives by two years across the world. This number could be as high as five years in Sub-saharan Africa and more than seven years in Asia. In Sylhet, the cleanest district in Bangladesh, the loss in life expectancy due to air pollution is 4.3 years, almost twice the global average.

Second, inequality in exposure also bears out within countries and within communities in a region.

In the cleanest parts of Europe (Camera de Lobos in Madeira, Portugal), particulate concentrations are as low as 1.8 ug/m3. While in parts of eastern Europe (Tuzla in Federacija, Bosnia and Herzegovina), the levels could be as high as 30.9 ug/m3.

In the United States, studies have shown that people who live in predominantly Black or African-American neighbourhoods suffer greater risk of premature death from particulate pollution than those who live in communities that are predominantly White.

At home, in India, the limited research exploring air pollution through an inequality lens finds that caste, religion, poverty, education and access to basic amenities, all have a bearing on pollution exposures.

Third, the resources— air quality data and funding— needed to address air pollution are unequally distributed throughout the globe.

Clean Air Fund’s report on the State of Global Air Quality Funding found that Asia and Africa, which share over 90 percent of the air pollution burden, received less than 40 percent of international philanthropic funding on air quality. What is worse is that most of this funding came in the form of loans instead of grants— which can further increase the fiscal burden for low-income debt-ridden countries.

Fourth, despite there being ample evidence establishing the higher burden of air pollution in countries of the Global South, more than 70 percent of epidemiological studies— which are a prerequisite for determining safe levels of air pollution exposure and establishing air quality standards— have been conducted in low-pollution settings of Europe, the United States and Canada.

In our increasingly unequal societies in which almost everything is distributed according to hierarchies of class, caste, gender, race and so on, air pollution is no exception.

In countries where millions are dying as a result of air pollution, should the governments not encourage these foundational studies that help determine safe levels of exposure for their citizens?

Despite knowledge of these clear signs of inequality— what are multilateral agencies and countries doing? Do we have universally-accepted processes to track progress towards reducing these inequalities?

Adding the air pollution lens to the discourse on inequality

Historically, global inequality was exclusively defined in terms of differences in wealth. This changed recently when the World Inequality Report 2022 looked at equality through a broader lens which included indicators on gender and ecological inequality as well.

Reduced Inequalities” is also one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a set of universal goals to meet the urgent environment, policy and economic challenges faced by the world. Within the SDG framework, each goal is associated with a set of indicators.

The SDG on reduced inequalities focuses on reducing inequality between and within countries through the use of indicators which measure rise in incomes and opportunities for the poor, improvement in financial protection for the vulnerable, and increase in social inclusion and political representation of minorities. While these are very important, there is no indicator to measure improvements or deterioration in access to a clean and safe environment.

I made this slight digression to explain how the definition of global inequality can be rather incomplete in the context of issues surrounding environmental justice. Monitoring and reporting air pollution inequality could be one way to address this.

Earlier, I highlighted a few ways in which air pollution inequality manifests itself. Here I present some ways to objectively monitor and report these inequalities:

  1. Whether or not a country has an ambient air pollution standard? According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s first global assessment of air pollution legislation, more than 30 percent of countries in the world are yet to stipulate ambient air quality standards. Among those which have a standard, only 9 percent have standards that comply with WHO guidelines.
  2. What share of the population in the country breathes air which is non-compliant with the national or WHO standard? Within countries, this could be a good metric to identify regions plagued by a relatively higher burden of air pollution.

Inclusion of such indicators in the inequality discourse can further bolster the case for global action on air pollution.

How can we use inequality to prioritise air pollution in the multilateral agenda, political commitments and citizen demands?

Before I delve into what can be done, it is important to acknowledge that while the statistics cited in this article make a compelling case for rampant inequalities in the burden of air pollution, these inequalities are neither visible nor communicated effectively.

Had the severity of air pollution been communicated effectively, one would assume that those with the means would spend on preventive measures to reduce their exposure to air pollution. But, evidence suggests otherwise.

We need to understand that air pollution is also an issue of justice. And, if solved, it can be a lever for enabling not just a cleaner but also a more equal world.

study that measured indoor air pollution levels across houses from different socio-economic classes in Delhi had two very surprising findings: 1) The particulate levels in the richer households were only 10 percent lower than those in poorer households, and 2) Less than 20 percent of the rich households owned an air purifier.

This means that despite breathing toxic air, richer households in Delhi do not consider it a risk worthy enough of requiring a preventive measure. This is a clear indication that we need to think about communication around air pollution and its risks differently.

First, air pollution information must be communicated in ways that people can understand. Given the long-term impacts and largely invisible nature of air pollution, it is very difficult to communicate to people how differences in pollution levels manifest physically.

How is breathing air with an AQI of 100 different from breathing air with an AQI of 200? How should my response be different at these different pollution levels? Air pollution data must be accompanied with information that helps answer these questions.

Second, ensuring widespread communication of air pollution information to people. While national governments need to ensure this happens by opening up access to government-monitored air quality data, a multilateral push is needed to ensure that countries are incentivised to make their air quality data open.

This is particularly important in the context of the Global South countries as 96 percent of total life years lost due to PM2.5 are in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, only 3.7, 6.8 and 19 percent of governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, respectively, provide fully open air quality data.

While my recommendations may seem straightforward, they are not simple to execute. Implementing them requires meticulously researched data and financial resources.

On monetary resources required to monitor and report air quality data, research by University of Chicago suggests that an investment of about US $8 million can significantly help address air quality data gaps on a global scale. When compared to worldwide costs of health damages associated with air pollution (US $8 trillion per year), this seems like peanuts.

Over time, exposure to such information would hopefully lead people to question why it is that some regions have better air quality than others. What is happening in those regions that is enabling better air quality? Such questions will eventually lead to organised demands for cleaner air.

On the air quality communication front, resources are available that help understand the impact of air pollution in concrete and relatable terms. For instance, the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) is a global data tool, developed by researchers at the University of Chicago, which allows people across the globe to see how air pollution is reducing their life expectancies.

Over time, exposure to such information would hopefully lead people to question why it is that some regions have better air quality than others. What is happening in those regions that is enabling better air quality? Such questions will eventually lead to organised demands for cleaner air.

An increase in demand from people would put pressure on national governments to respond with pollution mitigation measures and policies. Multilateral agencies will then have to step in to monitor how well these mitigation policies are able to reduce the air pollution inequalities that exist in our world today.

We live in an unequal world and air pollution is aggravating this inequality by increasing the health and economic burdens for regions and communities where resources are already scarce. Let us not think of air pollution as a symptom of inequality, but let us look at air pollution mitigation as a pathway for a healthier and fairer world!

Original post on The Leaflet

Areas of Focus: Environment
Definition
Environment
Producing and using energy damages people’s health and the environment. EPIC research is quantifying the social costs of energy choices and uncovering policies that help protect health while facilitating growth.
Air Pollution
Definition
Air Pollution
Air pollution from fossil fuel combustion poses a grave threat to human health worldwide. EPIC research is using real-world data to calculate the effects of air pollution on human health...
AQLI
Definition
AQLI
Particulate air pollution is one of the most serious risks to human health globally. To help communicate those risks, the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) converts particulate air pollution into...