Air pollution is a $1.7T health problem, OECD finds

LEIPZIG, Germany -- Air pollution is costing the world's most advanced economies plus India and China $3.5 trillion per year in lives lost and ill health, with a significant amount of the burden stemming from vehicle tailpipes, according to a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In the 34 OECD member states, the monetary impact of death and illness due to outdoor air pollution was $1.7 trillion in 2010. Research suggests that motorized on-road transport accounts for about 50 percent of that cost.

In China, the total cost of outdoor air pollution was an estimated $1.4 trillion in 2010. In India, the OECD calculated the toll at $500 billion.

"It makes for an alarming read," said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría in launching the report here yesterday at the International Transport Forum (ITF) 2014 summit.

"The effects of air pollution on people's health are much higher than previously thought. In turn, we estimate that the costs of air pollution are higher -- and they continue to rise," he said. "Road transport is a major source of harmful air pollutants, and we can and should do more to reduce them."


The costs were calculated based on survey data of how much people are willing to pay in order to avoid premature death due to ailments caused by air pollution. The methodology assigns a cost to the risks of emissions that decisionmakers can use in weighing public policy decisions.

Strokes, heart attacks linked to transportation ills

The report does not attribute a specific portion of China and India's air pollution costs to road transportation because the sector has been relatively small and lacking data until recently, according to Gurría.

Air pollution overall has had a severe effect in fast-growing economies, however. While premature deaths from air pollution in OECD countries dropped between 2005 and 2010, the global death rate rose by 4 percent, largely due to a 5 percent increase in pollution-related deaths in China and a 12 percent increase in India.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 3.5 million people die each year from outdoor air pollution. Toxic air emissions are now the biggest environmental cause of premature death, overtaking poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water.

According to a World Bank report released in March, transportation contributes to six of the top 10 causes of death, including heart disease, stroke and lung cancer in addition to conventional on-road injuries.

Worldwide, vehicle accidents kill 1.3 million people per year, 90 percent of whom are in developing countries. When the health impacts of air pollution from cars and trucks are also considered, the death toll linked to motorized transport rises to more than 1.5 million per year.

"Combined, the death count is higher than HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis," said Jose-Luis Irigoyen, World Bank director for transport, water, and information and communications technologies, speaking at the ITF summit.

Double benefits of diesel dips

Air pollution also has a substantial impact on the climate. Burning fossil fuels in vehicles and power plants produces greenhouse gas emissions, as well as harmful chemicals like nitrous oxides and particulate matter.

"There are obviously huge co-benefits between policies to address air pollution and policies to address climate change.] Carbon pricing, for example," said Anthony Cox, head of climate, biodiversity and water at the OECD.

The OECD is increasingly emphasizing the strong links between short-term and medium-term policy priorities, like air pollution regulations, and how they mutually benefit long-term issues like climate change, he said.

Curbing the use of diesel vehicles is one such policy that would produce a double benefit. Diesel fuel is carbon-intensive and responsible for the vast majority of health risks from air pollution in OECD countries, yet a majority of member states tax diesel less than gasoline.

The OECD report advocates for removing incentives that favor diesel. It also calls for policies to address the effects of air pollution on the most vulnerable and for the further tightening of vehicle emission standards.

The United States and the European Union already have regulations in place for light-duty vehicles that are driving increases in fleetwide fuel economy. Building on this, the European Commission yesterday agreed on a new strategy to curb carbon dioxide emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, which make up a quarter of road transport emissions in the European Union.

But while developed economies are actively progressing toward their emissions targets, policies are generally weak or nonexistent in the developing world, where fleets are growing fastest.

Next stop: a U.N. goal?

To tackle the growing detrimental health and climate effects of transportation emissions, leaders in the sector are urging for the inclusion of clean transportation targets in the United Nations' post-2015 development goals, dubbed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The FIA Foundation, an independent charity sponsored by the International Automobile Federation (FIA), has proposed several specific goals: a 50 percent fatality reduction from 2010 levels by 2030, a doubling of the number of people within World Health Organization guidelines for urban air quality to 1.5 billion and a 50 percent improvement in fuel economy for new cars globally by 2030.

According to the Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI), a collaboration that includes the FIA Foundation, energy efficiency improvements to cars with internal-combustion engines could save $2 trillion over the next decade. Through improvements like weight reduction and start-stop hybrid technology, global fuel economy could double in all cars by 2050.

"Fuel economy has not traditionally been sexy, but it's galloping up the sustainable development agenda," said Sheila Watson, FIA Foundation director of environment and GFEI executive secretary. The secretary-general's High Level Panel, the U.N. SDG transport brief and the Open Working Group leader's report have all proposed fuel economy as a post-2015 SDG target.

While alternative fuels like electricity and hydrogen often dominate the clean transport debate, the International Energy Agency projects that in 2050, oil will still supply the vast majority of transportation fuel. The IEA also expects the world will invest $400 trillion in fuel and vehicles by midcentury.

"It is an amazing amount of investment, and obviously, it's absolutely key that we influence this investment now, before it starts rolling out, to ensure that we get the vehicles in the field that address emissions," Watson said.

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