Air pollution rose to unhealthy levels around the world in 2021, according to a new report.
The report by IQAira company that tracks air quality globally, found that average annual air pollution in every country – and 97% of cities – exceeded World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelineswhich were designed to help governments develop regulations to protect public health.
Only 222 cities out of the 6,475 analyzed had an average air quality that met the WHO standard. Three territories were found to have complied with WHO recommendations: the French territory of New Caledonia and the US territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were among the countries with the highest air pollution, exceeding the limits by at least 10 times.
The Scandinavian countries, Australia, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom ranked among the best countries for air quality, with average levels exceeding recommendations by 1 to 2 times.
In the United States, IQAir found that air pollution exceeded WHO recommendations by 2 to 3 times in 2021.
“This report underscores the need for governments around the world to help reduce global air pollution,” Glory Dolphin Hammes, CEO of IQAir North America, told CNN. “(Particulate matter) kills far too many people every year, and governments need to set stricter national air quality standards and explore better external policies that promote better air quality.”
Above: IQAir analyzed the annual average air quality for more than 6,000 cities and ranked them from the best air quality in blue (Meets the WHO PM2.5 guild line) to the worst in purple (exceeds the WHO PM2.5 guideline by more than 10 times). a interactive map is available from IQAir.
It is the first major global air quality report based on the new WHO annual air pollution guidelineswhich were updated September 2021. The new guidelines halved the acceptable concentration of fine particulate matter – or PM 2.5 – from 10 to 5 micrograms per cubic metre.
PM 2.5 is the smallest pollutant, but also among the most dangerous. When inhaled, it travels deep into the lung tissue where it can enter the bloodstream. It comes from sources such as burning fossil fuels, dust storms and wildfires and has been linked to a number of health threats, including asthma, heart disease and other respiratory diseases.
Millions of people die every year because of air quality problems. In 2016, around 4.2 million premature deaths were associated with fine particles, according to the WHO. If the 2021 guidelines had been applied that year, the WHO found there could have been nearly 3.3 million fewer deaths from pollution.
IQAir analyzed pollution monitoring stations in 6,475 cities in 117 countries, regions and territories.
In the US, air pollution increased in 2021 compared to 2020. Of over 2,400 US cities analyzed, Los Angeles’ air remained the most polluted, despite seeing a 6 percent decrease from 2020. Atlanta and Minneapolis saw significant increases in pollution, the report showed.
“(The United States’) reliance on fossil fuels, increased wildfire severity, and varying administration-by-administration enforcement of the Clean Air Act have contributed to U.S. air pollution,” the authors wrote.
Researchers say the main sources of pollution in the US have been fossil-fueled transportation, energy production and wildfires, which wreak havoc on the country’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities.
“We’re very dependent on fossil fuels, especially for transportation,” said Hammes, who lives a few miles from Los Angeles. “We can be smart about this with zero emissions, but we’re not doing it yet. And this has a devastating impact on the air pollution we see in big cities.”
Fires caused by climate change played a significant role in reducing air quality in the US in 2021. The authors pointed to a number of fires that led to dangerous air pollution – including the Caldor and Dixie fires in California, as well as the Bootleg fire in Oregon, which blew smoke all the way to the East Coast in July.
China – which is among the countries with the worst air pollution – showed improved air quality in 2021. More than half of the Chinese cities analyzed in the report saw lower levels of air pollution compared to the previous year. The capital Beijing continued a five-year trend of improving air quality, according to the report, due to a policy driven discount of polluting industries in the city.
The report also found that Amazon forestwhich had acted as the world’s main defender against the climate crisis, emitted more carbon dioxide than it absorbed last year. DEFORESTATION and forest fires they have threatened critical ecosystems, polluted the air and contributed to climate change.
“This is all part of the formula that will or will lead to global warming.” Hammes said.
The report also revealed some inequities: monitoring stations remain limited in some developing countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, leading to a lack of air quality data in those regions.
“When you don’t have that data, you’re really in the dark,” Hammes said.
Hammes noted that the African country of Chad was included in the report for the first time due to the improvement of its monitoring network. IQAir found that the country’s air pollution was the second worst in the world last year, after Bangladesh.
Tarik Benmarhnia, a climate change epidemiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has studied the health impacts of wildfire smoke, also noted that relying only on monitoring stations can lead to blind spots in these reports.
“I think it’s great that they relied on different networks and not just government sources,” Benmarhnia, who was not involved in the report, told CNN. “However, many regions do not have enough stations and there are alternative techniques.”
UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 2021 report that, in addition to slowing the rate of global warming, reducing the use of fossil fuels would have the added benefit of improving air quality and public health.
Hammes said the IQAir report is even more reason for the world to get off fossil fuels.
“We have the report, we can read it, we can internalize it, and we’re really dedicated to taking action,” she said. “There needs to be a major move towards renewable energy. We must take drastic action to reverse the tide of global warming; otherwise, the impact and the train we are in (would be) irreversible.”