According to our calculations, the air pollution in Southeast Asia will reach toxic levels in some regions, and this will not be confined to big cities. In general, the air quality in such regions will be twice as poor as it is today.
Dr Andrea Pozzer
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, the Institute of Atmospheric Physics and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, predict that by 2050, global levels of air pollution will be as high as they are currently in urban areas of Southeast Asia. China, India and the Middle East have been identified as particular areas for concern.
The researchers conducted a simulation using the chemical atmospheric model EMAC. This model accounted for the five major air pollutants known to adversely affect human health: nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide and particulate matter PM2.5 – pieces of which are smaller than 2.5µm. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution is currently responsible for 1.3 million deaths annually, and this figure is expected to rise over the coming decades.
The simulation envisages somewhat of a worst-case scenario by showing what is likely to happen if no further measures are taken to counteract air pollution. I asked the Max Planck Institute’s Dr Andrea Pozzer about the likelihood of this situation actually occurring, and about what can be done to counteract the harmful trends that he and his colleagues have identified…
Were you surprised by the rate at which levels of global air pollution seem to be increasing?
Partially. I should emphasise that our estimations are based on the presumption that no additional regulations will be implemented beyond those that were in place in 2005. Neither did we account for possible technological advances that might take place. Even so, we expect that China and India will continue to show increases in air pollution. One of the surprises was the Middle East, which our research suggests will become a strong hotspot for ozone concentration. Another was the predicted increase in pollution over Southeast Asia, in line with population increases. Statistically speaking, we expect that a large part of the global population will have to endure very poor air quality.
You have said that your forecast is to some extent pessimistic. Do you think that we might be able to avoid the scenario that you have predicted?
Yes indeed. Take for example North America and Europe. In these areas, legislation that has been put into place over decades has had positive effects. We think that future air quality will be more or less constant across these regions. However, problems with air quality are best tackled at a local level. It is down to the environmental agencies of individual countries to regulate and monitor the issue of air pollution. The study that we have performed simply illustrates what could
happen if no action is taken.
You have predicted that by 2050, levels of global air pollution will reach similar levels to those currently found in urban areas of Southeast Asia. Are things likely to get much worse in Southeast Asia itself during this period?
Yes, they will. According to our calculations, the air pollution in Southeast Asia will reach toxic levels in some regions, and this will not be confined to big cities. In general, the air quality in such regions will be twice as poor as it is today.
What action needs to be taken in order to counteract the damaging trends that you have identified, and how long do we have to take such action?
As I said, air quality is a local problem. The lifespans of these pollutants tend to be very short. Hence, any action at any time is productive. Local environmental agencies must effectively enforce the relevant regulations by using networks to ensure that set limits are not exceeded.
I understand that you plan to conduct further research to determine how many people will be affected by global air pollution over the coming years. What do you expect to find?
We will use epidemiological studies to estimate mortality associated with air pollution. I don’t yet have any real idea about the numbers so I cannot make any predictions in this respect.