“Fresh air” is a myth. In reality, 90% of us (worldwide) are breathing dirty air on a permanent basis. Because we can’t see the pollution in our air, we don’t tend to think about it enough. But our air is weakening all of us and killing 7 million a year, as well as placing an undue burden on health systems in every country. This has to stop and it can: No more petrol or diesel cars, trucks, buses, two- and three-wheelers, or trains – all of which can be replaced today by clean alternatives. Soon, no more petrol or diesel ships and planes too. Let’s get going.
Photo by Assaad W. Razzouk
Two recent scientific studies shocked me, and both should be front page news every day, at least until we’ve dealt with the Coronavirus.
The first one said that tiny air pollution is linked to 11% more death from COVID-19.
The second one said that 15% of worldwide coronavirus deaths may have resulted from dirty air and the damage it causes to our heart and our lungs, that’s 600,000 deaths and counting, given that COVID-19 caused more than 3 million deaths worldwide.
That same second study said that 27% of Coronavirus deaths in China are attributable to air pollution, 26% in Germany, 18% in the U.S. and 14% in the UK. In other words, all these ‘excess’ deaths occurred because air pollution made sure that the Coronavirus had a deadly impact.
That got me thinking about that myth that we are all sold, which is the myth of ‘fresh air’.
You would have encountered it on a personal level, if you’d walked out to a park or a green space in your city to breathe some fresh air. I’ve got news for you, that is absolutely not what happened. In fact, you were breathing extremely polluted air.
In this episode, I’m going to tell you exactly why ‘fresh air’ is a myth and what is it that we need to do about it.
Welcome to Episode 43 of the Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk.
RIO EARTH SUMMIT
Many years before Greta Thunberg, there was Severn Cullis-Suzuki.
In 1989 she was nine. At that young age, she founded something called the Environmental Children’s Organization. At age 12, she attended the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
She became famous, as “the girl who silenced the world for five minutes”, when in her speech she said that she was afraid to go out in the sun now because of the hole in our ozone, and she’s afraid to breathe the air because she doesn’t know what chemicals are in it.
That was back in 1992.
The two studies I just referred to, both peer-reviewed, one in a journal called Science Advances and the other one in a journal called Cardiovascular Research, one focused on the United States and the other global, both basically say that Severn, correct in 1992, is also correct today in 2020.
You too should be afraid to breathe the air, because you most definitely don’t know what chemicals are in it, even though it’s been 28 years since the 12 year old silenced the world for five minutes with exactly that point.
What have we done since about it?
I’ll tell you what we’ve done about it: We’ve done almost nothing.
There is some good news though: We are starting to do something. But we’ve done so little in 28 years it’s nothing short of outrageously scandalous.
THE BASICS ON FRESH AIR
Let me tell you more about your ‘fresh air’, including a lot of information everyone should know though Severn, back in 1992, did not.
Let’s start with the basics.
There are three types of air pollutants that cause terrible health problems.
The first one is called particulate matter (PM) and within that there’s a small menu of PMs: PM 2.5 and PM 10 in particular. These two, the 2.5 and the 10, refers to their size. They are tiny.
How tiny? PM 2.5 means 2.5 micrometres and PM 10 means 10 micrometres, when a single hair from your head is 70 micrometres in diameter.
We’re talking about stuff which is one seventh to one thirtieth smaller than the diameter of your hair and that you can’t see with your eyes.
Particulate matter worsens heart disease. It worsens lung disease. These things have microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that you can basically inhale them and when you do, they’re going to go deep into your lungs and some continue to your bloodstream.
The second type of air pollutant is nitrogen dioxide. These cause a flare up of asthma or symptoms, for example, coughing and difficulty breathing.
The third type of air pollutant is called ground-level ozone. This one forms when heat and sunlight allow a reaction between two other pollutants, nitrogen oxide, which we’ve just talked about and volatile organic compounds, which basically are gases emitted from some solids or liquids.
Now you’re not going to be surprised when I tell you what particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone have in common: They all come from power plants burning fossil fuels, like coal and gas and oil. They all come from cars that are burning petrol or diesel, and they also come from industrial plants. At its core, most of our air pollution is driven by the burning of oil, gas, and coal. There are many other sources of that pollution: construction sites and the dust they generate; unpaved roads; wildfires of course; and the haze that travels around with these and reduces visibility; and your central heating system at home, if it’s gas-powered. But let’s not change the subject and start worrying about dust from construction sites, when we know that the fundamental driver of air pollution is the burning of oil, gas, and coal, as well as petrol and diesel cars, buses, scooters and trains and let’s not forget airplanes and ships.
Over the past 150 years, we have been burning gas, oil, and coal and polluting at will, using the air as a free garbage can. When you look out through the window in your house or in your apartment, you’re not going to see any of that pollution, and so then you walk around actually thinking that you’re breathing fresh air.
Similarly, in any city in the world, you would generally assume, when going out to the park, that you’re going to breathe some fresh air. That is most definitely not what you’re doing. You are breathing PM 2.5, you’re breathing PM 10, you’re breathing NOx and you’re breathing nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone. It’s gotten so bad that nine out of ten citizens worldwide are breathing dirty air right now. Poorer regions and poorer countries are suffering more.
IMPACT OF DIRTY AIR
The impact of that dirty air is more deaths from stroke, heart disease, from chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, from lung cancer, from acute respiratory infections and that’s just the deaths, which the World Health Organization estimates as 7 million people worldwide each year. Seven million people dying because they are breathing dirty air disguised as ‘fresh air’ most of the time.
But away from that horrible statistic of 7 million people dying, there is everybody else whose health is being negatively affected: asthma sufferers, people that are coughing because of dirty air, weaker lungs, weaker hearts and a general weakening of the health of the entire population of the world, for which nobody is paying.
‘Fresh air’ is therefore, basically a myth.
If you keep that in mind, you’ll be increasingly motivated to take action. You can take action, both at an individual level, by walking more or using a bicycle or switching to an electric car or an electric scooter, and as a collective by voting for fresh air.
What’s crazy about this topic is not only that fresh air is a myth, but that we would benefit so much from cleaner air. We’d have less traffic, we’d have more liveable cities and towns, we’d have fewer days off sick, our healthcare systems would save an enormous amount of wasted time and money, because at the moment they are having to deal with all these illnesses. I’m not even referring to the 7 million deaths, I’m talking about everybody else who is not dying, but is affected by what they breathe. That burden on our health services is huge.
The actions that we’re taking around the world are never going to be enough until we stop using petrol and diesel cars and dirty scooters and buses and planes and ships, and phase-out coal, gas and oil.
New Delhi, for example, routinely declares public health emergencies shutting down schools, distributes millions of protective masks not because of any virus, but because of dirty air – from the nexus of burning oil, gas, and coal and dirty cars and buses and scooters, and wildfires and burning crops for agricultural purposes, as they do in northern India.
However, even before the agricultural crops are burned and wildfires arise, adding to the pollution and creating a haze that then we can see, we are breathing invisible dirty air all along. All the wildfires do is remind us of it for a few days or weeks.
The realisation that we are breathing dirty air is important. Air pollution has been major factor behind China’s war to clean up its environment for example, this year committing to go net zero by 2060. The Chinese saw air pollution with their own eyes in their major cities, then demonstrated en masse: China routinely clocks 80,000 environmental riots a year. The government had to take decisive action and began restricting the number of high polluting cars and buses on China’s roads, heavily pushing electric buses. China is also turning several hundred million two wheelers into electric scooters and the country understand the direction of travel: They’re just simply going to have to stop burning coal.
It’s not a coincidence that the world’s most congested cities are those with the dirtiest air.
It’s no longer an excuse that the pollution particles are so small as to be invisible, or that science hasn’t caught up with the impact of pollution from fossil fuels. It has.
There is no justification anymore for not effecting change at an individual level and not voting as a collective for fresh air.
We already know that our own behavior has been destructive.
Destructive to biodiversity.
Destructive to climate.
We’ve been putting pressure for decades on wild animals, because we have been taking over where they live and we have been destroying their ecosystems. We’ve also kept them in cages. As a result of doing all of that recklessly, we’ve had many animal pathogens infecting us.
Talk about self-destruction.
From Ebola to anthrax to the bubonic plague and others, coronavirus is really just the most recent example of what nature is trying to tell us with a very loud voice. It also turns out that not only are we effectively creating these pandemics, but we’re making sure that their impact is even worse than it should be, by preparing the grounds via a deliberate pollution of our air and the quasi elimination of fresh air for nine out of ten humans on the planet.
THE GOOD NEWS
But here’s the good news.
If you fight climate change today, you are also fighting air pollution. You are protecting your lungs and you are protecting your heart. You’re also fighting back against asthma and a whole range of other diseases that are impacted by the air that you breathe.
The parallels between fighting climate change and air pollution, are that both would require us to eliminate the use of 90% of the oil, gas, and coal that we use today.
Vote for plans to end illegal air pollution.
Vote for diesel to disappear.
Vote for changes to road taxes, if you live in countries where these exist, so that anybody driving a diesel car or a petrol car is pushed to stop.
Vote for more pedestrian zones.
Vote for more bicycles.
Vote for more infrastructure to support electric cars and electric buses and electric scooters, especially scooters in poorer countries, because they represent the main mode of transportation.
If you visit Jakarta or to Ho Chi Minh or Bombay, you’ll quickly realize that all petrol scooters need to go and be replaced by electric scooters, because the impact on the fresh air of that population will be instantaneous – and very large. The impact on the health care systems of these countries will also be greatly beneficial for all.
If you want to reclaim your fresh air, we’ve really got to eliminate coal, followed shortly thereafter by oil and gas (these two don’t have to completely go worldwide, but 90% has to).
On that note, thank you so much for listening to this Episode 43 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk. If you like my podcasts, please leave a review anywhere you listen to your podcasts and have a great couple of weeks.
There is so much to be angry about, if you are a clean energy guy.
Every day, so many things that happen around the world make me angry when I look at them with lenses colored by the climate change chaos unfolding everywhere around us. And I am especially angry because I know we can solve the climate change crisis if we were only trying.
Each week, I will share with you a few topics that struck me and that I was very angry about – and this will generally have to do with climate change, solar or wind power, plastic pollution, environmental degradation, wildlife, the oceans and other related topics.