Population Matters

Air pollution and population density

Air pollution and population density

Air pollution causes 3.7 million premature deaths each yearAir pollution causes 3.7 million premature deaths each year, with pollution increasing by an average of 60 per cent for each doubling of a city’s population.

London exceeded its annual air pollution limits within two weeks this year, and the UK now faces up to £300 million per year in fines from the European Union for each year that the government has failed to act on reducing harmful air pollutants to acceptable levels.

The most dangerous of these pollutants are nitrogen oxides and microscopic particulates, which cause respiratory problems and sometimes heart attacks. Particulates alone are blamed for 29,000 deaths in the UK annually. Diesel automobiles, which make up nearly half of the UK market, are the biggest contributors of these pollutants at street level.

Air quality is becoming a serious problem in the developing world, where regulations and household access to technologies such as cleaner-burning fuels often have not kept pace with rapid urban population growth. In fact, 88 per cent of global deaths attributable to air pollution occur in low- to middle-income countries, making air pollution the fifth leading cause of death in the developing world.

Inspired by recent legal action against the UK government for its inaction on air pollution, we have published a briefing reviewing the issue and its connection with population. We find that population is an amplifier at the root of this problem, but air pollution is one environmental issue where technology is sufficient to overcome dramatic population growth and clean things up.

A shrinking population could make pollution less of an issue in the future, but immediately we need government to invest in new technologies and regulations.