Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing epidemic of air pollution continues around the world. The problem is particularly neglected in Brazil, where air pollution kills about 51,000 people every year, yet the country lacks strong policy for reducing pollutant emissions and monitoring air quality. This has especially serious consequences today. One study indicated that the death rate from COVID-19 may have increased by up to 11% in U.S. cities where people were exposed for many years to high concentrations of pollutants.
A new study by WRI Brasil, The State of Air Quality in Brazil, shows how vulnerable the neglect of air pollution has made Brazilians. In one of the most comprehensive syntheses of air quality studies in the country, the report reveals how, as in the case of the coronavirus, the effects of the air we breathe are deeply uneven across groups. Air pollution more severely impacts the poorest residents, as well as children and the elderly. The report also shows how the impacts of pollution in Brazil extend far beyond environmental and health issues, also affecting the economy, climate change and more.
The report’s findings have relevance not only for Brazil but for countries and cities around the world. Below, we highlight four reasons to make air quality a priority in 2021 and what paths experts recommend to get there.
A Threat to Health in the Midst of a Health Crisis
Before COVID-19, air quality was already the greatest environmental risk to human health on the planet, according to the World Health Organization. The impacts of air pollution on health include premature deaths from lung and cardiovascular diseases, stroke and other conditions. One study by the Instituto Saúde e Sustentabilidade in Brazil estimated that based on 2016 pollution patterns in six Brazilian metropolitan regions, where 23% of the country’s population lives, there will be about 128,000 early deaths between 2018 and 2025, costing R$51.5 billion ($9.8 billion) in lost productivity. There will also be 69,000 public hospitalizations at a cost of R$126.9 million for the Unified Health System in Brazil. This estimate was made before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added sudden and immense stress on hospitals and the economy.
Air Pollution Is a Silent and Still-Ignored Enemy
Despite the worrying health impacts, Brazil remains largely unaware of the severity of its air pollution. Only 1.7% of the country’s municipalities are currently monitoring air quality, mainly in the southeast region. In practice, this means that most of the country has no information about the state of the air they breathe.
The air quality standards established by the National Environment Council (CONAMA) are not met in most large Brazilian cities, and there are no clear penalties for not complying with them. While there is a desired goal to meet World Health Organization standards there is no clear schedule for the implementation of more restrictive targets. A substantial weakness in Brazil’s standards is the lack of data on implementation policies and impacts, along with a legal framework that includes too many loopholes and that does not allow for robust and comprehensive air quality policy.
Many of the weaknesses in Brazil’s national air quality policy stem from a lack of clear resources or incentives provided at the federal level for the states. States are responsible for enforcing local air quality standards, but without explicit accountability, even though cities have control over relevant policies that affect air quality, such as local transportation rules.
How Brazil reforms its approach to air pollution will have lessons for other countries. As WRI Brasil’s report lays out, effectively tackling this problem requires strong leadership at the national level. A national air quality policy should be guaranteed by law, and clear targets must be set for implementation of national air quality standards, with explicit penalties for non-compliance. Policies and incentives should be created that help to reduce regional asymmetries in air quality management and improve the technical capacity of local environmental agencies. The data science behind air quality policies must also be strengthened, mainly by expanding and improving the national atmospheric monitoring system, prioritizing critical areas and using new technologies, and national policies to control air pollutants and reduce greenhouse gas emissions need to be strategically aligned.
Air Quality and Climate Targets Are Well Aligned
As WRI Brasil’s study shows, air pollution is not a strictly urban problem. During fires in the Amazon region, for example, the levels of pollutants generated reach values of particulate material (MP 10) of 500 micrograms per cubic meter, which represents about 25 times more pollution than the historical average of the region (20 micrograms per cubic meter). This particulate material then moves with the air currents throughout the country.
It is in urban centers, however, that air pollution tends to be most evident, and also where solutions to the problem may be best launched, alongside climate action. Urban transportation offers a promising front: Opinion polls show 67% of Brazilians would trade their cars or motorcycles for cleaner transport alternatives. A tool launched by WRI Brasil helps to estimate the economic and health gains of replacing diesel buses with electric buses.
Reducing emissions and improving air quality also involves encouraging active transport modes, such as cycling and walking. Several cities, especially in Europe, are setting targets to ban combustion vehicles from the streets, many by 2030. And cities like Paris are folding climate goals into broader visions for streets that give more priority to pedestrians and cyclists and that enable cleaner, more sustainable and more livable cities overall.
Many countries have also set targets to reach zero emissions for all vehicles. Meanwhile, Brazil’s automotive industry is trying to postpone stricter standards for heavy vehicles – standards that are already less ambitious than those of many nations, including developing countries. This is the wrong direction. The sooner we accelerate the transition toward sustainable urban mobility and cleaner air, the more lives will be saved.
Addressing Air Pollution is Good for the Economy
The good news for countries like Brazil is that fighting air pollution also makes economic sense. It is estimated that the costs associated with premature deaths due to polluted air were equivalent to 3.3% of the Brazil’s GDP in 2015. Pollution’s negative impact on the Brazilian economy comes from the drop in worker productivity, premature deaths, limitations on the acquisition of cognitive skills relevant to education caused by exposure to pollutants, and losses in agricultural productivity.
A recent study by WRI Brasil and New Climate Economy found that a low-carbon, sustainable economy – which improved air quality is inextricably linked to – can add $535 billion to Brazil’s GDP by 2030 compared with business as usual, and create 2 million additional new jobs. The report found that electric buses, for example, represent a key opportunity for low-carbon development and competitiveness in Brazil, both for urban mobility and for potential export.
In Brazil and elsewhere, tackling air pollution requires a suite of solutions and a great deal of collaboration. The recommendations in WRI Brasil’s report include to strengthen synergies and compatibility between air quality policies and structural policies for urban planning, climate and economic development.
Further research should also be promoted on the economics of air quality and analysis of public policy implementation, as well as on the interface between air quality and socioeconomic inequality. Civil society and health sector representatives should also be more equitably included in the governance of air quality, with decision-making powers and full participation equivalent to representatives of the environment.
Brazil has a long way to go in making its air cleaner, its population healthier and its economy stronger. Learning from its robust scientific community is key in choosing policies that promote win-win solutions and create a robust ecosystem of actors that will ensure that these become reality.
Bruno Felin is a Senior Communication Specialist at WRI Brasil.
Walter De Simoni is the lead author of WRI Brasil’s air quality report and a specialist on climate policy in Brazil.