Air pollution is the greatest external threat to human life expectancy on the planet. That’s the key takeaway from the latest report published by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, saying that air pollution now takes more than two years off the global average life expectancy — more than cigarettes and alcohol.
1. Air Quality Life Index
The report, known as the Air Quality Life Index, or AQLI, reveals that particulate air pollution — a mixture of contaminants such as smoke, fumes, dust and pollen — has remained high, despite the lockdowns during Covid-19, which slowed the global economy and temporarily improved the air quality in some of the world’s most polluted areas.
As global pollution increased in 2021, so did its burden on human health, reads the report, showing that reducing global pollution to meet the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline would add 2.3 years onto average life expectancy. Yet, the burden of pollution is not spread evenly throughout the world — nor are the basic resources necessary to build strong policies, alerts the report.
2. Asia and Africa
Asia and Africa bear the greatest burden yet lack key infrastructure. In Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, the AQLI data reveal that residents are expected to lose about 5 years of life expectancy on average, if levels of pollution persist. Since 2013, about 59% of the world’s increase in pollution has come from India alone.
The report also highlights China’s efforts to curb pollution as a “remarkable success” but urges for caution as the pollution in the country is still six times the WHO guideline, taking 2.5 years off life expectancy. Because of its large population, the Asian giant experiences the second highest health burden from pollution globally, behind India, in terms of total life years lost.
3. US and Europe
While the United States and Europe seek tougher standards, pollution’s impacts are unequal in both places. In 2021, 20 out of the top 30 most polluted counties in the United States were in California due to the impact from wildfires. In Europe, eastern residents are breathing dirtier air than their western neighbors and living shorter lives because of it. In 2022, the European Commission proposed ratcheting down the European Union’s current annual PM2.5 pollution standard of 25 μg/m³ to 10 μg/m³ by 2030.
4. Latin America
Despite having a rich ecosystem, Latin America struggles with pollution hotspots and lacks fully open air quality data. The most polluted areas across Latin America — located within Guatemala, Bolivia, and Peru — experience air quality similar to pollution hotspots like Pune, India and Harbin, China. In these regions, the average resident would gain 3 to 4.4 years of life expectancy if their air quality met the WHO guideline.
5. Opportunity to act
The report outlines an outsized opportunity for the global air community to act and change the current reality. In particular, by focusing on rebalancing the support that strategically targets funding towards the key components needed to confront air pollution.
“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than 2 years of life expectancy,” Michael Greenstone, director of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, said in a news release. “This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world,” he said. “Except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space.”