Air pollution rose to unhealthy levels around the world in 2021, according to a new report.
That report from IQAira company that tracks global air quality found that average annual air pollution in all countries – and 97% of cities – exceeded World Health Organization guidelines for air qualitywhich was designed to help governments make 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 met the WHO guidelines: 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 worst air pollution, exceeding the guidelines by at least 10 times.
The Scandinavian countries, Australia, Canada, Japan and the UK ranked among the top countries for air quality, with average levels exceeding guidelines by 1 to 2 times.
In the US, IQAir found that air pollution exceeded WHO guidelines 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. “(Fine particles) kill far too many people every year, and governments need to set stricter national air quality standards and explore better foreign policies that promote better air quality.”
Above: IQAir analyzed the average annual air quality for more than 6,000 cities and categorized them from best air quality, in blue (Meets WHO PM2.5 guildline) to worst, in purple (exceeds WHO PM2.5 guideline more than 10 times). An interactive map is available from IQAir.
It is the first major global air quality report based on WHO’s new annual guidelines for air pollutionwhich was updated in September 2021. The new guidelines halved the acceptable concentration of fine particles – or PM 2.5 – from 10 down 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 the burning of 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 from air quality problems. In 2016, approx 4.2 million premature deaths was associated with fine particles, according to the WHO. If the 2021 guidelines had been applied that year, the WHO found that there could have been nearly 3.3 million fewer pollution-related deaths.
IQAir analyzed pollution monitoring stations in 6,475 cities in 117 countries, regions and territories.
In the United States, air pollution increased in 2021 compared to 2020. Out of more than 2,400 US cities analyzed, the air in Los Angeles remained the most polluted, despite a 6% decrease compared to 2020. Atlanta and Minneapolis experienced significant increases in pollution, the report showed.
“(U.S.) reliance on fossil fuels, increasing severity of wildfires, as well as varying administration-by-administration enforcement of the Clean Air Act have all contributed to U.S. air pollution,” the authors wrote.
Researchers say the main sources of pollution in the US were fossil fuel-powered transportation, energy production and wildfires, which are wreaking havoc on the country’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities.
“We’re heavily dependent on fossil fuels, especially for transportation,” said Hammes, who lives a few miles from Los Angeles. “We can act smart on this with zero emissions, but we still don’t. And this has a devastating impact on the air pollution we see in major cities.”
Climate change-driven wildfires played a significant role in reducing US air quality 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 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 experienced lower levels of air pollution compared to the previous year. The capital Beijing continued a five-year trend of improved air quality, according to the report, due to a politically driven withdrawal of polluting industries in the city.
The report also found that Amazon rainforestwhich had acted as the world’s greatest defender against the climate crisis, emitted more carbon dioxide than it absorbed last year. Deforestation and forest fires have threatened the critical ecosystem, polluted the air and contributed to climate change.
“This is all part of the formula that will lead or is leading to global warming.” Hammes said.
The report also revealed some disparities: monitoring stations are still few in some developing countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, resulting in a lack of air quality data in these 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 an improvement in its surveillance network. IQAir found the country’s air pollution to be the second highest in the world last year, after Bangladesh.
Tarik Benmarhnia, a climate change epidemiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has studied the health effects 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 trusted different networks and not just government sources,” Benmarhnia, who was not involved in this report, told CNN. “But many regions do not have enough stations and alternative techniques exist.”
United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 2021 report that in addition to slowing the rate of global warming, limiting the use of fossil fuels will have the added benefit of improving air quality and public health.
Hammes said the IQAir report is even more reason for the world to wean itself off fossil fuels.
“We have the report, we can read it, we can internalize it and really commit to action,” she said. “There needs to be a big step towards renewable energy. We need to take drastic measures to reverse global warming; otherwise the impact and the train we’re on (would be) irreversible.”