The Toxic Marriage of People and Air

“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.” (Jacques-Yves Cousteau). With this thought in mind, if we attached the same value to clean air as we attach to petrol, money or gold, the vision of the world completely covered in smog, with people wearing gas masks would no longer seem so plausible.

Every year, approximately 7 million deaths (both household and outdoor) are attributed to poor air quality and pollutants present within the atmosphere, making air pollution the fourth biggest threat to human health and life. Although the air pollution is being managed by environmental policies in developed countries and is beginning to decrease in China, less developed areas of the world such as India and South-East Asia are experiencing a steady increase.  Air pollution in Africa is rapidly increasing; in turn, it can be observed that poorer countries have felt the effects of air pollution more so and this is causing a large problem.

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If the smog within the air is not a good enough motivator for change, the air pollution has much more to offer in terms of negative effects on our lives and environment. Toxic chemicals, which are trapped in the lower levels of the atmosphere are known to cause both short-term and long-term health conditions. These include skin, eye and respiratory system irritation as well as 29% of all deaths caused by air-pollution induced lung cancers.

Together with the negative health effects, the air pollution is often closely linked to greenhouse gas emissions and indirectly linked to the global warming as a result.  Since the 1950’s, the world’s climate has been steadily warming up. The main culprits responsible for polluting air and the atmosphere are particulates of matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.  Moreover, these are closely linked to the combustion of fossil fuels, in transportation, urbanisation as well as energy generation. This is especially prominent in poverty-struck areas where more modern and environmentally friendly industry approaches are lacking.


Nonetheless, there have been measures put in place in order to combat the issue of air pollution. Furthermore, there has been an initiative named the Clean Air Scenario that has developed a scheme known as “A-I-R”.  In turn, the effect of this is that each initial represents an objective that can be carried out in order to prevent future applications of air pollution.  The acronym “A-I-R” devises to:

  • Avoid pollutant emissions by providing energy services more efficiently or in a way that does not involve fuel combustion.
  • Innovate to reduce pollution related costs via technology improvements that will also reduce costs for the post-Paris energy transition.
  • Reduce pollutant emissions to the atmosphere, via stringent emissions limits on combustion plants and vehicles…and strict regulation of fuel quality. (Energy and Air Pollution, 2016)

Though the future looks promising as many initiatives have been put in place to dramatically decrease the volume of pollutants in the atmosphere by 2040, air pollution has maintained a profound impact on the world for decades.  Industry and urbanisation are just some examples of ways we are polluting our planet.  It is clear that action needs to be taken in order to prevent this air polluting inferno from taking more lives.  “Why should one say that the machine does not live? It breathes, for its breath forms the atmosphere of some towns.” – Benjamin Disraeli. 


By Natasha Mistry and Damian Borowiec




Energy and air pollution, World Energy Outlook, IEA, 2016, Chapter 1, pp19-38

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva



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