THE BLOG
09/28/2016 02:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

As Millions Die, the Time to Enforce Air Pollution Standards Is Now

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Air pollution in Anyang, China - via Flickr

Conventional business wisdom has it that cutting carbon emissions and air pollution hits industrial output hard, stifling global growth and holding back emerging economies in particular. Despite the fact that 195 nations committed to bringing forward peak global emissions as soon as possible at the climate conference in Paris last year, experts have warned that deals struck at the COP21 will not be enough to halt dangerous levels of global warming - and that's even before counting the intervention of some business leaders who are opposed to implementing them altogether.

It's undeniable that weaning industry off fossil fuels and investing in renewable sources of energy won't come cheap. Many companies' bottom lines will come under increased downward pressure as the world works towards a greener future, and it seems that some don't want to take the short-term hit. What those who oppose a faster move towards peak emissions seemingly fail to realize is that air pollution has immediate consequences that impose major financial and social costs on our economies as a whole.

Slowing global warming is widely viewed as a mid to long-term goal, but rampant carbon emissions are already taking a devastating toll on the health and welfare of millions of people all over the world. According to the World Bank, air pollution is currently the fourth highest risk factor for premature deaths on the planet. The organization estimates that the number of premature deaths caused by poor air quality resulted in health and welfare costs of $5 trillion worldwide in 2013, and lost the global economy some $225 billion in labor income during the same year.

Carbon emissions and air pollution are costing lives and money all over the world, but some regions -- perhaps unsurprisingly - are suffering more than others. In 2010, data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that health costs linked to air pollution were $1.7 trillion in OECD countries, $1.4 trillion in China and $0.5 trillion in India, demonstrating how China is disproportionally affected by the problem. Health conditions linked to air pollution killed 1.6 million people in China in 2013, according to scientists presenting their findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC this February.

Major investment will be required to cut air pollution, not only in developing nations, but also in industrialized and urban environments all over the world. In London last year, some 10,000 people lost their lives to air pollution. And that's in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet. While the cost will most definitely high, countries such as China - which are home to heavily polluting companies that have proved slow to cut the harmful emissions they produce - really can't afford to sit idly by. Beijing needs to take action especially in curtailing the abuses of its sprawling industrial complex that sits at the heart of the issue.

Despite China's commitment to reduce overcapacity and improve air quality, a full 80% of all Chinese aluminium is produced while violating emissions standards. According to reports, over 24,4 million tons of aluminium smelting capacity and 10,065 MW of installed power capacity are in direct breach of the Communist Party's permitted ceilings for particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and fluoride emissions. Despite the fact that the guidelines dictate that a plant found breaching them can be put off-line and forced to pay a fine of up to one million yuan, a full 62 smelters run by companies like Hongqiao, Xinfa or East Hope are in direct violation of the standards. As long as enforcement remains shaky, there is scant hope for China's air pollution deaths to decrease.

According to estimates from a report commissioned by the Green Finance Committee of China Society for Banking and Finance and Bloomberg Philanthropies, Chinese cities will need investment of some $1 trillion to meet the country's pollution targets over the next five years. Globally, U.S. President Barack Obama's commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 will cost $5.28 trillion, a study from Columbia Business School economist Geoffrey Heal suggests. These are huge numbers, but are brought into sharp perspective when compared to the worldwide welfare and health costs associated with air pollution. Funding Obama's pledge, for instance, would cost around the same as the global financial loss to the symptoms of poor air quality in just one year.

The fact that the majority of the money required to lower air pollution will need to come from financial markets is a major barrier to change, as many firms are less than enthusiastic about the pace of reform required. However, it's not difficult to find evidence of how quickly the required investment can pay off.

Chinese textile mills that participated in a program run by the New York-based non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council designed to clean up the industry soon reaped the financial rewards of implementing greener practices. After completing the program, 33 mills in Shaoxing and Guangzhou slashed their operating costs, saving millions of dollars in the process. In 2014, a report put together by Ceres, David Gardiner & Associates, Calvert Investments and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) revealed that more than half of Fortune 100 companies had collectively saved $1.1 billion in energy costs after introducing renewable energy programs.

By failing to tackle air pollution, politicians and industry leaders are inflicting a heavy blow on workers and the world economy as a whole. The fact that investing in renewable energy can pay off so quickly should make going green and absolute no-brainer for all stakeholders. Unfortunately though, while the majority of big businesses remain focused on short-term returns for their shareholders, air pollution will continue to kill millions of people all over the world each year.