Biggest environmental cause of mortality

An Indian Jain monk wears a face mask to protect flies from a premature death and unintentionally also himself from the same due to air pollution. Photo: Meena Kadri / Creative Commons

A new OECD report says that by 2050 air pollution will become the biggest cause of premature death, killing an estimated 3.6 million people a year.

Up-to-date projections of  socio-economic trends up to 2050, and their implications for four key areas of concern: climate change, biodiversity, water and the health impacts of environmental pollution, are presented in a recent study by the OECD. It is foreseen that despite the recent economic recession, the global economy will nearly quadruple to 2050 and rising living standards are expected to be accompanied by ever growing demands for energy, food and natural resources – as well as more pollution.

Specifically as regards air pollution it is expected that in the absence of new policies air pollution is set to become the world’s top environmental cause of premature mortality by 2050, overtaking dirty water and lack of sanitation. Air pollution concentrations in some cities, particularly in Asia, already far exceed the recommended air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), and air quality is projected to deteriorate further to 2050.

The number of premature deaths caused by exposure to particulate matter (PM) is projected to more than double worldwide, from the current figure of just over one million to nearly 3.6 million per year in 2050, with most deaths occurring in China and India.

Over the same time period, premature deaths from exposure to elevated concentrations of ground-level ozone are projected to more than double worldwide, from 385,000 to nearly 800,000. Most of these deaths are expected to occur in Asia, where ozone concentrations as well as the size of the exposed population are likely to be highest. More than 40 per cent of the world’s ozone-induced premature deaths in 2050 are expected to occur in China and India. However, once adjusted for the size of the population, OECD countries – with their ageing and urbanised populations – are likely to have one of the highest rates of premature death from ground-level ozone, second only to India.

Moreover, substantial increases in sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions are likely to occur in the key emerging economies in the coming decades. Compared to the year 2000, emission levels of SO2 and NOx are projected to increase by 90 and 50 per cent, respectively, by 2050.

Currently only about two per cent of the global urban population are living in areas with PM10 concentrations not exceeding the WHO’s Air Quality Guideline of 20 μg/m3 as an annual mean for PM10. Approximately 70 per cent of the urban population in the BRIICS and “rest of the world” countries are exposed to PM10 concentrations above the WHO’s highest interim target, which is set at 70 μg/m3.

In 2050, the baseline scenario projects that the percentage of people living in cities with concentrations above this highest WHO interim target will be even higher in all regions. This is despite the air quality improvements projected to 2050 in OECD countries and the BRIICS countries, as these improvements are expected to be eclipsed by population growth in urban areas.

To avoid the problematic future painted by the Environmental Outlook to 2050, the report recommends a cocktail of policy solutions, including using environmental taxes and emissions trading schemes to make pollution more costly than greener alternatives; valuing and pricing natural assets and ecosystem services like clean air, water and biodiversity for their true worth; removing environmentally harmful subsidies to fossil fuels or wasteful irrigation schemes; and encouraging green innovation by making polluting production and consumption modes more expensive while providing public support for basic research and development.

It is concluded that the costs of inaction could be colossal, both in economic and human terms. Without new policies world energy demand in 2050 will be 80 per cent higher and still 85-per-cent reliant on fossil-fuel-based energy. This in turn could lead to a 50 per cent increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally.

Christer Ågren

Note: BRIICS is an abbreviation covering a number of today’s new high-growth emerging economies, namely: Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa.
Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction. For more information see:


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