This post originally appeared on World Economic Forum Agenda Forum. Photo credit: A hazy view of Shanghai, China

This post was co-written and compiled by Carlin Rosengarten and Angel Hsu.


As the world is becoming wealthier, the air we breathe is becoming increasingly toxic.

The concurrent trends are not coincidental because the chief sources of economic growth – industrial manufacturing, power production, cars and trucks – are the same sources of pernicious air pollution. But just how bad is the air we breathe?

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a multidisciplinary project based at Yale University, provides an answer in its 2016 report, released in January at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. This year’s index shows that three and half billion people – half the world’s population – are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution every day, by World Health Organization (WHO) standards. The heightened exposure means more people than ever are getting sick and dying from breathing foul air. Ambient pollution killed more than 5.5 million people in 2013, or one in 10 deaths, a statistic that is on the rise, as this chart shows.

Global deaths due to air pollution and deaths from unsafe drinking water. Source: 2016 EPI.

Global deaths due to air pollution and deaths from unsafe drinking water. Source: 2016 EPI.

Another statistic that catches the eye shows the exponential growth of per capita GDP, which doubled from 1985 to 1995 and doubled again by 2014. The simultaneous generation of wealth and pollution begs the question: do nations have to sacrifice clean air and public health in exchange for economic growth? No, it turns out that they do not. In fact, air pollution is a huge drag on national economies. Air pollution costs more than lives – toxic air costs money.

In China, where air pollution is an everyday scourge for more than half the population, the number of deaths that can be attributed to airborne toxins is one in five. These outrageous deaths plus the health care costs for the millions sickened by the air added a $1.4 trillion (USD) burden on China’s economy in 2010 – a staggering 23% of its national GDP – according to an OECD study. Different reports vary widely in their estimates of air pollution’s economic costs, and predictably China’s government finds much smaller losses, yet everyone agrees on two facts: the air has gotten much worse and bad air is bad for business.

Air pollution in emerging giants like China and India is now notorious and an issue of national morale. Yet the 2016 EPI finds that unsafe levels of air toxins is a global phenomenon not peculiar to the developing world.

Europe’s pollution problem

In Europe, the cradle of coal combustion, where particulate matter clouded the skies in the mid-20th century much like it does today in Asia’s rapidly growing economies, invisible pollutants remain a costly burden. One WHO study found that air pollution cost European economies $1.6 trillion in 2010 (USD) – or about 10% of EU GDP.

In Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany NOx (nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide gases, which form smog) levels, driven by the widespread use of diesel fuels in vehicles, exceed China’s. New laws, however, are set to drastically reduce tailpipe emissions in Europe. In China and India, coal-fired power plants and the introduction every day of thousands of new vehicles to the roads continues to push NOx levels beyond what humans can safely tolerate.

National governments have grown wise to air pollution’s high costs, some sooner than others, and the world’s major economies are acting to clean up their air. The US Environmental Protection Agency is set to regulate power plant emissions and implement new vehicle emissions standards that will save Americans as much as $53 billion in annual healthcare costs by 2030.

China’s blue sky thinking

Following months of record-breaking pollution, China’s government released its “Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Action Plan” in September 2013, establishing five-year goals for reducing air toxin levels in its major urban and industrial areas. Last year China amended its 15-year-old Air Pollution and Prevention Control Law to include stricter regulations on shipping emissions in the nation’s booming ports. And, collaborating with the US, Chinese officials announced in late 2014 that the country will peak carbon emissions by 2030 if not before, the same year the government has pledged blue skies over its cities.

But merely showing the will to remedy air pollution is insufficient. To clear the air of toxins – to manage the environment for people’s benefit – governments must craft policies that utilize reliable air quality data. And while air quality data has never been more abundant globally than it is today, large data gaps remain, especially in developing nations where air quality is declining.

In response to the need for more and better data, many national governments are collaborating with each other and with private sector firms to devise new methods for collecting, organizing, and disseminating information about air quality. Just last month South Korea and NASA announced the Korea U.S.-Air Quality study (KORUS-AQ), a partnership that will use a combination of aircraft, ground monitors, ships at sea, and satellite observations to assess air quality across the southern half of the Korean peninsula.

The rise of “citizen science”

Multinational collaborations like this are growing in number and scale. Just as satellite and other remote sensing technologies improve and are deployed to collect air quality data, individual, low-cost pollution monitors are important contributors to data collection. Sensors small enough to be carried around by individuals going about their daily lives have become accurate and affordable, and personal networking devices allow for real-time data collection and dissemination.

This convergence of technological innovation presents a golden opportunity for citizens to contribute large-scale, fine resolution air pollution data to governments and for governing bodies to relay information back to the people. New public-private projects in China and the U.S. are piloting these kinds of networks, and it seems inevitable that within a few years citizen science will be a major source of air quality data.

Innovations in air monitoring represent one market-based answer to a market failure and, of course, it must only be a first step. To meet our environmental challenges requires more than good technologies and functioning markets – it requires sound policy. Who is to say which policies work and which do not? How do we know which nations are managing their ambient environments for the benefit of people and to protect natural resources and which are falling short?

The EPI, a widely recognized arbiter of national level environmental policy, provides answers to these difficult questions in its 2016 report. Tracking and ranking countries according to nine key categories that evaluate ecosystem and human health, the report describes the condition of the global environment, the relative environmental performance of nearly all of the world’s nations, and also the state of environmental data.

The conclusions are unsurprising and, in the case of air, painfully clear. First, better measurement leads to improved management, and vice versa: areas that we do not measure well, such as local air quality, are calamitous examples of environmental over-exploitation and destruction. Second, environmental management is essentially an issue of good governance: nations that do not take care of their air are not caring well for their people.

Developed and developing nations alike have vowed to clean up their air. These states will, however, not succeed on their own. Citizen groups, working with governments yet outside of their influence, will be the most effective monitors for fighting air pollution.