Polluted air is a threat that perhaps too many people still underestimate, despite it millions of dead every year. A recent study by the University of Chicago has revealed a worrying truth: breathing polluted air can reduce our life expectancy more than smoking.
How are we placed in the world? Some nations are making significant progress in tackling pollution, others are facing growing challenges. Let's look at the data closely.
Polluted air: silent killer
The air we breathe has a direct impact on our health. While many are aware of the dangers of cigarette smoke, few realize the devastating effect polluted air has on our longevity. The report published by the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute speaks crystal clear: air pollution is now identified as the main threat to public health globally, reducing the average life expectancy by 2,3 years.
China: a recovering giant
China, long a land of smog-blackened skies, is now trying to emerge as a model for improvement. From 2013 to 2021, the world's second-largest economy improved its air quality by more than 40%.
This remarkable progress has led to an increase in the life expectancy of its citizens by more than two years. But how did China make such a change?
It all started in the early 2010s, when an influential real estate mogul launched a social media campaign, pointing to Beijing's air quality data released by the US embassy. A move that has prompted the Chinese capital to be more transparent about pollution levels.
Public demand has not stopped, and the central government launched a "war on polluted air" in 2013. Today, nearly 25.000 emissions monitoring devices are installed in plants and factories across the country, providing hourly updates on publicly accessible emissions data.
India: the road is all uphill
For a China slowly trying to fix things, from 2015 to 2023 more than 50% of the world's life years lost are in four South Asian countries (India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan). India in particular, it alone contributed for almost 60% to the increase in global air pollution during that period. If India were to adhere to WHO guidelines on particulate pollution, the life expectancy of residents of the capital, New Delhi, would increase by 12 years.
Polluted air: awareness is needed. Right away
How seriously a country tackles its air pollution problem depends in part on public awareness. Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, points out that knowledge of the health risks associated with poor air quality is low in many African and Asian countries, which suffer the worst consequences.
"Improvements in air quality are often driven by public opinion," he said. And the public will need to really wake up: in addition to premature death, prolonged exposure to polluted air can cause a variety of diseases, including heart disease, lung cancer and diabetes.
They are not numbers, but represent real lives and the quality of our existence.