WASHINGTON, DC September 8, 2016— Air pollution has emerged as the deadliest form of pollution and the fourth leading risk factor for premature deaths worldwide. Those deaths cost the global economy about US$225 billion in lost labor income in 2013, a new study finds, pointing toward the economic burden of air pollution.
The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), seeks to estimate the costs of premature deaths related to air pollution, to strengthen the case for action and facilitate decision making in the context of scarce resources. An estimated 5.5 million lives were lost in 2013 to diseases associated with outdoor and household air pollution, causing human suffering and reducing economic development.
While pollution-related deaths strike mainly young children and the elderly, premature deaths also result in lost labor income for working-age men and women. The report finds that annual labor income losses cost the equivalent of almost 1 percent – 0.83 percent -- of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in South Asia. In East Asia and the Pacific, where the population is ageing, labor income losses represent 0.25 percent of GDP, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, where air pollution impairs the earning potential of younger populations, annual labor income losses represent the equivalent of 0.61 percent of GDP.
When looking at fatalities across all age groups through the lens of “welfare losses”, an approach commonly used to evaluate the costs and benefits of environmental regulations in a given country context, the aggregate cost of premature deaths was more than US$5 trillion worldwide in 2013. In East and South Asia, welfare losses related to air pollution were the equivalent of about 7.5 percent of GDP.
“Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital, and constrains economic growth. We hope this study will translate the cost of premature deaths into an economic language that resonates with policy makers so that more resources will be devoted to improving air quality. By supporting healthier cities and investments in cleaner sources of energy, we can reduce dangerous emissions, slow climate change, and most importantly save lives,” said Laura Tuck, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank.
Deaths related to ambient air pollution have risen in heavily populated, fast-urbanizing regions, while deaths related to cooking and heating homes with solid fuels have remained constant despite development gains and improvements in health services. Diseases attributed to both types of air pollution caused 1 in 10 deaths in 2013, or more than six times the number of deaths caused by malaria.
“This report and the burden of disease associated with air pollution are an urgent call to action,” said Dr. Chris Murray, Director of IHME. “Of all the different risk factors for premature deaths, this is one area, the air we breathe, over which individuals have little control. Policy makers in health and environment agencies, as well as leaders in various industries, are facing growing demands – and expectations – to address this problem.”
About 90 percent of the population in low and middle income countries are exposed to dangerous levels of ambient air pollution. The World Bank works with developing countries and development partners to reduce pollution by supporting monitoring and analysis, regulatory reforms, and investments. In 2016 for example, the Bank committed US$1 billion to help China improve air quality by reducing emissions of specific air pollutants from industrial, transport and rural sources in the province of Hebei, and by increasing energy efficiency and clean energy through innovative financing in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region (also known as Jing-Jin-Ji region) that covers the capital area and neighboring provinces.