The most deadly environmental issue Air quality has improved dramatically in rich countries over the past century. Around 1880, when the air was worst in London, it is estimated that 9,000 people died each year from air pollution, about one of every seven deaths. Today, London air is cleaner than it has been since medieval times.
Yet, air pollution is still a huge problem, especially in the developing world. It kills 7 million people each year, or one of every eight deaths globally. In Egypt, for instance, it now kills 53,200 people each year, or one of 10 deaths.
This is not, however, mostly air pollution that we generally think about. The most deadly air pollution comes from inside people’s houses, because 2.8 billion people still use firewood, dung and coal for cooking and keeping warm, breathing polluted air inside their homes every day.
To people who don’t live under these conditions, it is hard to imagine how dirty the indoor air is. The World Health Organization points out that the outdoor air for instance Beijing, Delhi and Karachi is several times more polluted that the outdoor air in Berlin, London and Paris. But the typical indoor air in a developing country dwelling with an open fire is many times more polluted than Beijing, Delhi or Karachi. That is why indoor air pollution kills 4.3 million people each year, making it one of the world’s leading causes of death.
Yet, indoor air pollution is rarely among the big issues the world discusses. In 2000, the world made a number of smart, short promises for 2015 called the Millennium Development Goals, focusing on poverty, hunger, education and child mortality. These were mostly good promises, but indoor air pollution was missing.
Now, the world’s 193 governments are discussing which targets to set for 2030, and there is a bewildering array of a 169 targets proposed. While indoor and outdoor air pollution are now part of the targets, so is everything else: with so many promises we have no priorities.
That is why my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, has asked 60 teams of the world’s leading economists to estimate which targets will do a lot of good for every dollar spent, and which will not.
International Development Economist Bjorn Larsen has done a comprehensive study on air pollution and found both good – and less good – solutions.