The cost of pollution in human lives is often abstract due to the long-term nature of such deaths. The cost, however, is quite concrete: A new report estimates that 4.1 million people died as a result of ambient air pollution in 2016. And that’s a conservative estimate.
Globally, only five causes of death took a higher toll. (High blood pressure and smoking were the leading causes.)
That sobering report was issued this month by teams of researchers at the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Their report, State of Global Air 2018, sought to analyze worldwide air pollution exposures and health impacts; data for 2016 is used because that is the most recent data available. The report states:
“Worldwide exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 4.1 million deaths from heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease, and respiratory infections in 2016. PM2.5 was responsible for a substantially larger number of attributable deaths than other more well-known risk factors (such as alcohol use, physical inactivity, or high sodium intake) and for an equivalent number of attributable deaths as high cholesterol and high body mass index. Ozone, another important component of outdoor air pollution, whose levels are on the rise around the world, contributed to 234,000 [additional] deaths from chronic lung disease.”
“PM2.5” refers to particulate matter less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter. Because particle pollution can travel deep into the lungs and cause or aggravate heart and lung diseases, there are numerous health hazards associated with it, including reduced lung function, development of respiratory diseases in children, aggravation of existing lung diseases and premature death of people with lung diseases, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overview that the Trump administration appears to not have gotten around to censoring. Sources include incomplete combustion, automobile emissions, dust and industrial activity.
This pollution is a global problem — the State of Global Air 2018 report notes that 95 percent of the world’s population lives in areas exceeding World Health Organization guidelines for healthy air, and almost 60% live in areas that do not meet even the WHO’s least-stringent air quality target. That widespread pollution adds up. The report states that “In 2016, long-term exposure to ambient PM2.5 contributed to 4.1 million deaths and to a loss of 106 million [disability-adjusted life-years], making PM 2.5 exposure responsible for 7.5% of all global deaths and 4.4% of all global DALYs.” (The term “DALY” refers to losses of healthy life and are calculated as the sum of the years of life lost from a premature death and the years lived with disability.)
Different countries have different source characteristics. In China, for example, industrial coal, transportation and residential biomass burning are the major sources of deaths attributable to air pollution, accounting for more than 400,000 deaths. In India, residential biomass burning is by far the single biggest culprit, responsible for an estimated 268,000 deaths. China has recently begun to slowly reverse an earlier rise in air-pollution deaths, but these remain on the increase in India. The report estimates that India could avoid up to 1.2 million deaths in 2050 through instituting more aggressive measures rather than simply keeping current practices in place.
Further costs of pollution
The actual global total of 4.1 million might actually be an under-estimate. The report says its calculation does not include causes of death and disability for which evidence for a causal relationship with exposure to ambient PM2.5 is growing, such as the development of asthma in children, low birth weight and pre-term birth, type 2 diabetes and neurological disorders.
By no means does the State of Global Air 2018 report exhaust the literature of the toll of pollution. A United Nations study, Towards a Pollution-Free Planet (an advanced copy of which was posted in December 2017), cites the World Health Organization estimate that 12.6 million people died from environmental causes in 2012, or almost one-quarter of the world’s deaths that year. The cost of pollution is enormous, not only in lives shortened but in economic costs. The UN study says:
“In 2013, the global welfare costs associated with air pollution were estimated at some $5.11 trillion. The welfare costs from mortality relating to outdoor air pollution were estimated at $3 trillion; for indoor air pollution the figure was $2 trillion. … With regard to human health, the welfare cost of mortality from unsafe water is considerable in many developing countries. In 2004, losses stemming from inadequate water and sanitation services in developing countries were estimated at $260 billion per year – the equivalent of 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) for some poor countries.”
Although deaths from pollution are much higher in developing countries, the total is significant in the advanced capitalist countries. Earlier studies, for example, estimated 200,000 premature deaths in the United States annually and 29,000 per year in Britain.
What is often missed in these sorts of reports is the externalization of costs. Industrial activity by large corporations is responsible for a significant amount of deadly pollution — but those corporate entities don’t bear the costs of that pollution. Rather, the costs are externalized onto society, leaving the profits to be grabbed by a handful of executives and speculators while the rest of the world must absorb the costs.
These economic costs are not insignificant. One corporate report, not intended for the public’s eyes, estimates that external costs total US$7.3 trillion per year, with greenhouse-gas emissions accounting for more than one-third of that total. The report, “Natural Capital at Risk–The Top 100 Externalities of Business,” finds that coal-fired power in East Asia and North America alone account for $770 billion per year in damage from the impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollution. These social costs exceeded the value of these sectors’ production value. Those two were among the top three sources of damages, along with South American cattle ranching, estimated to cost $350 billion.
It’s awful for us but great for profits
Getting closer to assessing responsibility, a separate United Nations report found that the world’s 3,000 biggest corporations cause $2.2 trillion of environmental damage in 2008. That total represents one-third of those corporations’ profits. This report appears never to have been released, although The Guardian was able to report briefly on its contents in February 2010. The true environmental cost, however, might have been yet higher, The Guardian reported:
“The biggest single impact on the $2.2tn estimate, accounting for more than half of the total, was emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. Other major ‘costs’ were local air pollution such as particulates, and the damage caused by the over-use and pollution of freshwater.”
All the more absurd then, that fossil fuels are subsidized to enormous extents — $5.6 trillion per year. That, unfortunately, is not a misprint. That total comes from calculating not only the huge direct government subsidies and tax breaks provided to fossil-fuel companies, but the cost of environmental damages borne by the public rather than the corporations themselves. The subsidized cost of air pollution and global warming combined account for two-thirds of the $5.6 trillion total, according to the researchers who prepared the working paper, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?.”
Although some of these reports, by implication, hint at the corporate responsibility for these massive costs, none dare to address the system that encourages such waste, instead offering boilerplate advice that humanity pollute less. The State of Global Air 2018 report discussed above, for example, concludes with a recommendation that “decision-makers” should be engaged in “identifying and taking action to control the major sources that contribute to them” and see to it that less coal is burned. The United Nations report Towards a Pollution-Free Planet, also discussed above, suggests a “framework for action” that is “founded on strong science to ensure that burdens and negative effects are not simply shifted from one area to another.”
There is nothing wrong with such suggestions, but if the source of the problem is never mentioned, how is a solution to be found? The massive environmental problems the Earth faces are not some deus ex machina or a natural variable such as ocean tides. They have concrete sources, rooted in the global economic system. Capitalism requires constant growth for which all incentives are for planned obsolescence, more growth, more industry and more pollution. That pollution in turn is mostly the result of activity by large corporations that are unaccountable and thus able to foist the costs of their activities onto society.
Once again, it is impossible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. The current global rate of consumption is 1.7 Earths for the provision of resources and the absorption of waste. It is impossible to indefinitely consume more than can be replenished, nor can rational and sustainable consumption and resource-use patterns be maintained in a system in which prices, taxation and incentives are so badly out of alignment with the environment. Our future ability to prosper can only be based on a steady-state economy that provides for need rather that private wealth accumulation, an impossibility under a system based on relentless competition.