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Policy Implementation Key to Improving Air Quality

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The dangers of poor air quality

The fourth largest threat to human health is poor air quality, which contributes to the premature deaths of approximately 3 million people per year, with the poorest in the world being the most affected, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Even worse, the IEA found that, overall, 6.5 million deaths each year can be linked back to air pollution. Unless emissions are curbed substantially over the next several decades, premature deaths are likely to increase significantly.

In cities that monitor air quality levels according to standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), 80 percent of those city populations are breathing air that falls below the acceptable levels. At current rates of emission, premature deaths are likely to rise from the current 3 million to 4.5 million per year by 2040 unless action is taken to reduce harmful pollutants from being released into the air.

Definitive links

The report highlighted definitive links between health, air pollution, and energy production and its use, with inadequate regulations or inefficient fuel combustion having the most impact on air quality.

As a result of the poor regulations or inefficiencies, millions of tons of pollutants, including particulate matter and sulfur and nitrogen oxides are spewed from vehicles, power plants, and factories, along with home heating and cooking fuel sources from nearly 2.7 billion people, most of whom live in poverty conditions.

"We need to revise our approach to energy development so that communities are not forced to sacrifice clean air in return for economic growth." -- Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency.

IEA's analysis found that properly implemented policies, along with a minimal investment in energy (around seven percent through 2040), could sharply increase air quality and improve overall human health.

Emissions are declining, primarily in industrialized nations, but continue to rise in India, Southeast Asia, and Africa as those countries continue to develop. Stronger governmental policies will help provide these growing nations with sustainable energy sources that are more widely accessible, preventing the sacrifice of air quality for continued economic growth.

Dubbed the "Clean Air Scenario" by the IEA, requirements for policy implementation include delivering access to clean cooking facilities for 1.8 billion people, emission controls, and shifting to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources. It also requires nations to strictly enforce emissions standards for industries and roadway vehicles, including transportation sectors.

Adherence to these policy implementations would increase pollution controls from the current rate of 45 percent to 75 percent, significantly decreasing air pollution. By 2040, this could reduce the number of premature deaths by up to 1.7 million.

The report outlines three actions that a government needs to take to ensure air quality strategies are adequate and long-term, including:

  • Setting air quality goals that are ambitious and long-term.
  • Instituting comprehensive clean air policies for the energy sector.
  • Ensuring compliance with effective communication, monitoring, enforcement and evaluation.

Implementing and following these comprehensive guidelines is likely to help rapidly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and provide sustainable energy sources even to the poorest areas, improving human health across the globe.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.