A smog-filled Delhi sky
A smog-filled Delhi sky
AFP/File Photo

Despite COVID-19 lockdowns that led to improved air quality, pollution was behind approximately 160,000 deaths in the world’s five most populous cities in 2020, according to a study.

While some cities saw small improvements in air quality as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, the devastating impact of air pollution underscores the need to rapidly scale up clean energy, build electrified, accessible transport systems, and end reliance on fossil fuels, the report published by Greenpeace Southeast Asia stated.

The study is an analysis by Greenpeace Southeast Asia of IQAir data from a live Cost Estimator.

Delhi witnessed an estimated 54,000 avoidable deaths due to PM2.5 air pollution in 2020, or one death per 500 people, the report stated, adding that Jakarta saw an estimated 13,000 avoidable deaths due to PM2.5 air pollution in 2020 and sustained air pollution-related losses of $3.4 billion, equivalent to 8.2% of the city’s total GDP.

The estimated economic cost of PM2.5 air pollution exceeded $5 billion in the 14 cities included in the analysis. Among these cities, the highest estimated total financial cost from air pollution was recorded in Tokyo, which saw approximately 40,000 avoidable deaths and an economic loss of $43 billion due to PM2.5 air pollution in 2020. Los Angeles recorded the highest per capita financial cost of PM2.5 air pollution of all cities on the estimator, at approximately $2,700 per resident.

“When governments choose coal, oil, and gas over clean energy, it’s our health that pays the price. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels increases our likelihood of dying from cancer or stroke, suffering asthma attacks, and experiencing severe COVID-19. We can’t afford to keep breathing dirty air when the solutions to air pollution are widely available and affordable,” said Avinash Chanchal, climate campaigner at Greenpeace India.

Greenpeace urged that governments at all levels invest in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, and clean-energy powered, accessible public transport to protect residents from lethal air pollution.

“Breathing should not be deadly. The fact that poor air quality claimed an estimated 160,000 lives in the five largest cities alone should give us pause, especially in a year when many cities were seeing lower air pollution levels due to less economic activity. Governments, corporations, and individuals must do more to eliminate the sources of air pollution and make our cities better places to live in,” said Frank Hammes, CEO of IQAir.

“In most parts of the world, it is now cheaper to build clean energy infrastructure than to continue investing in polluting fossil fuels, even before taking the cost of air pollution and climate change into account. As governments look to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19, they must create green jobs, build accessible, clean-energy powered public transport systems and invest in renewable energy sources like wind and solar. We demand a better normal, not only for the sake of our air, but also to address the flooding, heat waves, and intensified storms that we’re experiencing as a result of climate change,” said Bondan Andriyanu, campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

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