Clearing the Air

by Terence Jeyaretnam

In Australia, we take clean air for granted. But, globally clean air is becoming a scarce commodity due to the continued growth in the uptake of polluting forms of energy. Last year, Chinese multimillionaire Chen Guangbiao made headlines across the world when he sold 10 million ‘cans of fresh air’ in the 10 days for $0.80c each as pollution levels climbed to record highs. His effort was tongue-in-cheek, to advocate for better air quality, with proceeds going to poor regions.

Air pollution (both indoor and outdoor) killed some 7 million people across the world in 2012, making it humankind’s largest single environmental health risk, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO). In particular, WHO regards air pollution as the cause of one in eight global deaths, revealing a stronger link between poor air quality and cardiovascular diseases such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer.

News out of China regularly highlights the plight of its citizens and businesses from the air quality deterioration the country is experiencing – a result of 30 years of unchecked growth. Chinese scientists have warned that the country's toxic air pollution is now so bad that it resembles a nuclear winter, slowing photosynthesis in plants and impacting the country's food supply. The environmental ministry said last month that of the 74 Chinese cities monitored by the central government 71 failed to meet air quality standards. China is working to limit the local environmental impact from air quality with a proposal to soon revise an important piece of legislation and give environmental protection authorities the power to shut polluting factories, punish officials and restrict industrial development in some areas. The central government has also required 15,000 factories to publicly report details on their air emission discharges. There is also a $280 billion plan to improve air quality, including limiting coal use and banning high-polluting vehicles.

Air pollution, like greenhouse impact, stretches beyond the boundaries of the polluter. China's air pollution is not only causing severe impacts on neighbouring countries, it is even leading to more intense cyclones, increased precipitation and more warm air in the US mid-Pacific according to scientists.

Like China, other countries are recognising the double edged sword that coal and fossil fuel burning presents – being one of the most significant causes of air quality impact, as well as being the most material cause of greenhouse impact. Recently, the US Supreme Court endorsed the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to deal with air pollution blowing across state lines on from 28 eastern states to reduce power-plant emissions that carry smog and soot particles across state lines, hurting the air quality in downwind states. The ruling now means that about 1,000 power plants, mainly in the eastern half of the country, will have to adopt new pollution controls to limit emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. In Australia, this same debate played out when a fire raged out of control at Hazelwood brown coal mine in Victoria earlier this year affecting residents in nearby towns for about a month.

While Australian State and Territory governments have recently developed a plan to work towards a national clean air agreement by 2016 to improve air quality in cities, I wonder why the economics of human health is not given serious attention when tackling our energy needs.


Terence Jeyaretnam is a Director of Net Balance (, 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Terence is based in Melbourne.

Twitter: TerenceJey

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