Dirty air from global trade kills at home and abroad

Study co-author says issue is no longer local but requires global plan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 12:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 12:09am

A study that measures the human toll of transboundary air pollution and trade suggests China and India have pollution that travels elsewhere and kills between 65,000 and 75,000 people in other countries.

More than 750,000 people die prematurely from dirty air every year that is generated by making goods in one location that will be sold elsewhere, about one-fifth of the 3.45 million premature deaths from air pollution, according to the study published in Wednesday’s Nature journal.

The study said 12 per cent of those deaths, about 411,000 people, were a result of air pollution that had blown across national borders.

“It’s not a local issue anymore,” said study co-author Dabo Guan, an economist at the University of East Anglia in England. “It requires global cooperation.”

It estimated that PM2.5 pollution produced in China in 2007 was linked to 3,100 premature deaths in Western Europe and the United States.

Air pollution in Asia wafting over to the United States, increasing smog levels in West

China’s pollution, which affects Japan and South Korea, often headed over the Pacific where it was effectively weakened, said another co-author of the study, Steven Davis, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Irvine. India’s pollution heads directly to more populous neighbouring countries.

The study started by looking at the 3.45 million deaths a year that this and other studies say are triggered by tiny airborne particles often called soot or smog. About 2.5 million of those deaths are associated with the manufacture and consumption of goods, including the energy needed to produce and ship them. The rest are due to natural factors like dust and fires and other causes that cannot be tracked, according to study lead author Qiang Zhang, an atmospheric chemist at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

It has long been known that the environmental burden of manufacturing often falls most heavily on countries where companies set up shop to take advantage of low labour costs and relatively loose environmental regulations.

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But this is the first study to bring together economic, manufacturing, trade, atmospheric and health data to calculate the number and location of premature deaths from air pollution.

It found that people in Western Europe buying goods made elsewhere were linked to 173,000 overseas air pollution deaths a year, while United States consumption was linked to just over 100,000 deaths, the study said.

What that looks like in China: 238,000 deaths a year associated with production of goods that are bought or consumed elsewhere. The number of deaths in India is 106,000 and 129,000 in the rest of Asia.

“We have a role in the quality of the air in those areas,” Davis said. “We’re taking advantage of our position as consumers, distant consumers.”

Air pollution here to stay unless the economy is rebalanced

The study said three-quarters of the 1 million air pollution deaths in China – and the nearly half a million deaths in India – were from the production of goods consumed locally.

Producing more goods locally would change where deaths occur and potentially reduce overall deaths – if local emissions rules were tighter. Bringing back manufacturing to the United States, as US President Donald Trump wanted, would bring more air pollution deaths also, but reduce deaths worldwide because US pollution laws were stricter, Davis and others said.

Production was likely to remain concentrated in Asia, however, and it would have to be up to those countries to better regulate their own industrial emissions, said Peter Adams, an engineering professor and air pollution expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who wasn’t part of the study.

“Relying on consumer altruism,” he said, would not be enough.