Fraser Forum

World should target conventional air pollution

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The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released an interesting (if somewhat dry and lengthy) report, World Energy Outlook Special Report 2016; Energy and Air Pollution. 
I recently discussed the report on an every-other-Monday debate I participate in on CBC’s flagship business program The Exchange. As I mentioned in that discussion, I welcome this report, as it directs the world’s attention to what I believe, and have always believed, is a huge source of human suffering and environmental degradation.

Conventional air pollution (soot, acidic chemicals, ozone) on the scale seen in developing countries causes massive suffering, sickness and death.

Fixing that should be a global priority.

Yet we have, in recent years, been so focused on climate change impacts in the distant future, that we have lost focus on the reality that conventional pollution is killing millions of people today. According to the IEA, 6.5 million premature deaths every year are attributable to air pollution. The new IEA report makes it fairly clear that where we really need to focus, especially in developing countries, is on conventional pollutants: particulate matter, ozone-forming chemicals and acidic gases such as Sulphur dioxide, with greenhouse-gas reductions being seen as a co-benefit.

Another welcome aspect of this report is that it seems pragmatic, shying away from revolutionary “all renewables” language, and simply talking about moving to energy production that is less polluting, which realistically speaking involves natural gas, nuclear and hydro power. It also involves some very low-hanging fruit such as installing catalytic converters in vehicles, installing bag-houses and scrubbers on power plants, and switching from coal to natural gas, hydro and nuclear power generation.

The report also emphasizes the importance of universal electricity access, and universal access to clean cooking fuels, which are crucial elements of human and environmental protection and empowerment.
Of course, as with all things, one has to balance many factors, including the economic. As the IEA report notes, we know how to control conventional air pollution, but it’s not without costs. And given that poverty is also a major cause of morbidity and mortality (probably the largest cause). So, phasing in air protections without breaking the economic engines of development is important.

And there are always things to quibble about in a report like this. It’s fair to ask how mortality is estimated, how benefit-cost analysis is done, when developed countries (like Canada) hit diminishing returns on additional air pollution measures, and all that. But pollution levels are so high in countries like China and India, one doesn’t really have to ask whether reducing the pollution levels they experience is worth its cost—it most likely is.

Still, warts and all, it’s great to see at least some of our environmental debate return to what is probably the world’s greatest environmental challenge: getting clean air to the billions who suffer without it. The IEA is to be complimented on its timely new report, and its restoring conventional air pollution control to its proper place in international policy.

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