After this Pandemic, Let’s Make Clean Air a Human Right

Bart Shteinman - Politics and Economics


Idle factories, empty highways, and grounded passenger jets. With Covid-19 shutting down broad swathes of the global economy, it has been a silver lining for some that our planet might finally be enjoying a temporary respite.

Following the initial outbreak in Wuhan, February carbon dioxide emissions were recorded to have fallen year-on-year by 25% for the entire Chinese economy. NASA and the European Space Agency released a startling map (see below) showing the drop in Chinese nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions, a greenhouse gas hazardous for human health and 300 times more heat-trapping than CO2. One Stanford scientist calculated that 50,000 to 70,000 air pollution-related deaths may have been avoided in just two months of economic slowdown, 20 times the tally COVID19 had accrued at the time. There were even widely-believed stories of dolphins swimming in Venice’s canals (debunked shortly thereafter).

Nitrogen dioxide levels above China during Jan. and Feb., 2020.

While the pandemic lessened the health impact of the fossil fuel economy, air pollution has exacerbated the pandemic’s effects on human health. Living with poor air quality has lifetime health effects – being highly associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, and respiratory disease – the very same conditions that make one’s immune system highly vulnerable to Covid-19. A famous study following the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak demonstrated that patients from the worst polluted areas of China were twice as likely to die than those who enjoyed clean air. Tragically, the same disastrous health consequences of long term exposure are likely to be even greater in this pandemic.

To many in the rich world, the shocking air pollution generated by Chinese and Indian cities is waved away as a side-effect of prosperity. Development economists’ controversial ‘Environmental Kuznets Curve’, we are reassured, will see such ill-health peak and fall like a bell-curve. This describes the tipping point where fast-developing and emissions-intensive economies mature to middle-class status, wherein environmental concerns purportedly attract greater attention.

Indeed, my own grandfather has shared with me tales of growing up with the “pea soups” that plagued 1950s England, so heavy with poisonous sulphur dioxide (SO2) that one could scarcely see across the road. Certainly, the history of most post-war industrialised countries enacting vast regulatory agencies to banish visible pollution (if not the hidden kinds that heat our planet) seems to justify the meliorist view that we can breathe easy about air quality.

Yet while the trend-line may arc towards progress, it is different to say this represents a just or even morally adequate world. According to the World Health Organisation, 91% of the world population are living in places where its safety thresholds for outdoor air pollution were exceeded. While indoor air pollution (related mostly to heating and cooking) has seen significant falls, death rates from outdoor pollution have remained fairly stable in the world in the last 20 years. Moreover, this stability masks an ignominious shift from deaths in rich countries to poor and middle-income countries, with 6% of all global deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution – some 3.4 million people a year. They are the ones waiting for Kuznets’ Curve to bend in their favour.

Despite their improvements, even Western countries still have criminally high levels of air pollution in some pockets. Australia, which stands behind even China on regulating the SO2 of my grandfather’s youth, features prominently in Greenpeace’s rankings of pollution hotspots. Mt Isa, the La Trobe Valley, the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie sit alongside Siberian smelters and Indian industrial parks for the dangerousness of their air. The Australian government’s 2016 State of the Environment Report estimates some 3,000 deaths or 28,000 life years lost a year to air pollution.

What explains our indifference to the unceasing toll of air pollution? Part of it has to do with the normal quotidian struggle to hold powerful industries accountable. Another aspect is air pollution’s invisibility, framing the frailties of our human bodies as the killer in place of the real culprit.

Yet, above these sinister protections is a simple utilitarian decision. Some level of air pollution has been permitted as a necessary cost of industrialisation, a development that on balance saves untold millions not just from death, but also deprivation and drudgery. Part of the switch from indoor to outdoor air pollution simply reflects a fossil-fuel powered electrification of heating and cooking, a sensible and life-saving decision. Cancelling the car would prevent every single car accident fatality, but as a society we make the collective choice that, to put it bluntly, some deaths are needed to make life worth living.

A moral philosopher would characterise this as a classic case of the ‘trolley problem’, which shows how the ‘common good’ can often require seemingly villainous decisions. A runaway trolley is hurtling towards five people tied up on the track, and you face the choice to switch the trolley to a track with just one person tied. Both will result in deaths, but you’ll have saved more lives if you make the decision to risk the one (as with air pollution). Clean air might be a public good, but with some justification has hardly been treated as an inviolable right in even the most affluent society.

However, this moral equilibrium is fast becoming outdated by technological shifts. It is worth noting that, according to the Greenpeace SO2 report, more than 51% of total anthropogenic SO2 emissions are emitted in regions with high coal consumption. According to Carbon Tracker, a climate finance think-tank, 42% of coal power plants run at a loss while building new renewables is set to become cheaper than running 96% of existing plants by 2030 (from 35% in 2018). Not far behind SO2 belchingcoal will be NO2 emitting cars. According to Boston Consulting Group, newly competitive electric vehicles will drive the internal combustion engine (ICE) car to less than 50% of new sales by 2030. EV batteries have their own environmental issues, but nothing in the same order of magnitude as the smog-creating, planet-cooking, oil-spilling, and war-triggering petrol car.

These remarkable statistics do not even incorporate the free ride fossil fuels get on our public health. According to the IMF (2019) subsidies to fossil fuels – largely in the form of unpriced public health externalities – cost the world $4.7 trillion (6.3% of global GDP) in 2015. Efficient pricing would have lowered GHG emissions by 28%, cut air pollution deaths by 46% and increased tax revenue by 3.8% of GDP. While the industrial sector still accounts for a sizable degree of air pollution, the winding down of both coal and ICE vehicles open up entirely new possibilities for clean air at zero cost to the economy.

Moreover, providing clean power and clean air as a right for all isn’t simply an economic windfall, but represents an enactment of justice. Whereas before we may have accepted some level of air pollution as just another ‘price of civilization’, neglecting to act on new possibilities is a crime by omission. Environmental justice campaigners have long confronted the classist and racist manner in which certain disadvantaged communities carry the ‘collective’ burden of air pollution. Such oppressions now represent not just an egregious case of misallocated suffering, but an obscene and entirely needless subjection to deficient and outmoded technologies. The allegorical trolley needn’t run over anyone if you could just pull it on to a third, clean track.

So as this current pandemic recedes, perhaps our attention will be drawn to the far more persistent and deadly public health crisis. As technologies reshape our moral calculations, a once invisible injustice will become as clear as day.

Written by Bart Shteinman

Barton is a current student at the University of Sydney doing a Bachelor of Arts and Economics. A self-described entrepreneurial socialist, Barton is gripped by the contradictions between capital, democracy and ecology that have generated the climate crisis, and how unifying them might regenerate our world.

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