Air pollution will kill 6.6 million people per year by 2050 – this map shows why

How much pollution is too much? In a way, it’s quite sad that we have to ask the question – by doing so, we’re kind of accepting defeat on the dream of living a pure, pollution free existence.

A new study, led by Dr Jos Lelieveld from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz estimates that, even if every country in the world adopted our existing clean-air legislation, the number of air pollution related deaths would double to 6.6 million people per year worldwide by 2050.

There’s definitely gradients of bad here. Having commuted into central London this morning, I’d say that the air quality is far from perfect (something the city’s mayor is slowly coming round to), but the grass is definitely more brown and straggly on the other side. Specifically China, where a study from Berkeley Earth has estimated that air pollution contributes to between 700,000 and 2.2 million deaths per year.

“London’s air quality isn’t great, but the grass is definitely more brown and straggly on the other side…”

So if air pollution kills in China, surely our filthiest cities have a problem too? Well if we do, it’s pretty minor by comparison. We tend to measure the concentration of air pollutant in micrograms per cubic metre of air or µg/m3 in scientific shorthand, and on that score, as a nationwide average, China has mercifully got us well beat: an average of 48µg/m3, compared to our piddly UK average of 8.68µg/m3.

Just across the Irish Sea, the Republic of Ireland manages an even lower average of 4.99µg/m3 – although it’s worth bearing in mind that rural areas of Scotland, Wales and England are being dragged down by London.

Measured on a city level, London weighs in at 16µg/m3, which isn’t great – the World Health Organisation (WHO) gives a concentration of 12.1-35.4µg/m3 as being of “moderate” health concern. But the world’s worst-polluted cities are in a smoggy league of their own.new_york_smog

Delhi, for example, has an atmospheric value of 153µg/m3, towering above Beijing’s already uncomfortable 56µg/m3. In fact, India packs quite a few highly polluted cities, including Patna (149µg/m3), Gwalior (144µg/m3), Raipur (134µg/m3), Ahmedabad (100µg/m3) and Lucknow (96µg/m3).

So why is the overall average in China worse than it is in India? It could come down to the sheer number of “dirty power plants” – China has a whopping 610 of them, well ahead of the USA’s 371, India’s 187 and the UK’s 17.

Look at the data yourself on this incredibly interesting interactive map, courtesy of the Environmental Performance Index, which uses satellite, city and power-plant data to give you an overview of just how unclear the air is around you.

Delhi takes the grubby crown for “most polluted city”, but there is a sliver of consolation for its residents: the WHO quantifies its 153µg/m3 as just “very unhealthy”. It would need to gain an extra 97µg/m3 – or nearly two Beijings – to break into “hazardous” territory.

Not exactly one for the tourist board to boast about, but y’know: glass half full, guys.

Images: Kevin Dooley and Urbanfeel used under Creative Commons

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