Massimo Guerra

Air pollution is a major environmental problem that negatively impacts both human health and the planet. The air quality we breathe is being altered, concurrently affecting climate conditions. The World Health Organization has reported that nearly 99% of the global population is exposed to unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

The third Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of Agenda 2030 was established to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages. This goal was adopted in September 2015 by the governments of the 193 UN member countries. Target 3.9 of the SDG aims to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses caused by hazardous chemicals, air, water, and soil pollution and contamination by 2030.

The report of the World Health Organization about the impact of environmental situations on health highlights that ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) air pollution are environmental risk factors linked to several health conditions, such as they were responsible for approximately 7 million deaths globally in 2016.

An overwhelming 99% of the global population is exposed to unhealthy fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide levels. Exposure to these pollutants can result in various adverse health effects, such as nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, irritation of the airways, coughing, difficulty breathing, headache, fatigue, dizziness, and blue skin and lips due to interference with the blood’s oxygen-carrying ability.

Higher levels of nitrogen dioxide can also lead to more severe consequences, including breathing difficulties, collapse, and even death.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution refers to physical, chemical, and biological pollutants in the Earth’s atmosphere that alter the natural atmospheric properties and harm living beings and the environment. These pollutants are typically not part of the normal composition of air or are present at lower concentration levels.

In particular, the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the primary contributor to climate change.

Air Pollution: The driver of a global health crisis
Global temperature and carbon dioxide

The current statement presents information on air quality monitoring and the impacts of outdoor air pollution on the health of individuals in different countries. According to recent data, approximately 6,000 cities across 117 countries monitor air quality. The findings reveal that individuals residing in low- and middle-income countries experience higher levels of exposure to outdoor air pollution, exceeding the air quality limits recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Particulate matter, particularly PM2.5, can enter the bloodstream and penetrate deep into the lungs, leading to complications such as cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke), and respiratory diseases. Nitrogen dioxide is associated with respiratory tract diseases, particularly asthma, which can cause breathing problems like coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing, requiring hospitalization or emergency care.

In Europe, for instance, the estimated number of premature deaths resulting from chronic exposure to fine particulate matter in 2020 was 275,000, while 64,000 deaths were attributed to chronic nitrogen dioxide exposure, and 28,000 deaths resulted from acute ozone exposure.

Indoor air pollution in households is characterized by a distinct discrepancy between lower-income countries (LICs) and high-income countries (HICs) and between urban and rural areas, as depicted in the following visual representation.

Air Pollution: The driver of a global health crisis
Population with primary reliance on clean fuels and technologies for cooking, by residence area and WHO region, 2000–2020

The availability of clean water is a fundamental requirement for ensuring acceptable personal hygiene and food safety conditions, as exemplified by the following illustration.

Air Pollution: The driver of a global health crisis
Share of the population with access to drinking water facilities, 2020

And regarding the difference between urban and rural areas:

Air Pollution: The driver of a global health crisis
Coverage of rural and urban levels of water sanitation services, global, 2020

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Report, a section examines the correlation between environmental circumstances and human health. The report reveals that environmental hazards arise primarily due to the mismanagement of various types of waste, including liquid, solid, and gaseous waste.

Greenhouse gases are generated by factories, processing plants, vehicles, agriculture, and human activities involving non-electric devices. Liquid waste results primarily from processing plants that distribute it without adequate precautions, polluting soil, and water bodies. Solid waste, which may be hazardous or toxic, is often burned or buried without proper management.

Based on a report by the World Bank Group, it has been determined that the worldwide production of waste amounted to 2.24 billion tons in the year 2020. Furthermore, it has been projected that the amount of waste generated globally will increase to 3.88 billion tons by the year 2050.

Air Pollution: The driver of a global health crisis
Projected Waste Generation Per Capita by Region

The current global waste management practices predominantly involve waste disposal in landfills. A significant proportion of waste, approximately 37%, is disposed of in landfills, of which only 8% is directed towards sanitary landfills that incorporate gas collection systems. A significant portion of waste, around 31%, is disposed of through open dumping, while 19% is recovered through recycling and composting. Additionally, 11% of waste is incinerated as a final disposal measure. Adequate waste disposal or treatment facilities are primarily available in high- and upper-middle-income countries, with lower-income countries, relying heavily on open dumping as a waste management strategy. In low-income countries, approximately 93% of waste is dumped, while only 2% is disposed of in high-income countries.

Air Pollution: The driver of a global health crisis
Global treatment and disposal of waste (percent)

According to estimates based on the volume of waste produced, its composition, and how it is handled, approximately 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent greenhouse gas emissions were generated from the treatment and disposal of solid waste in 2016, representing 5% of global emissions. This is primarily caused by waste disposal in open dumps and landfills without implementing landfill gas collection systems. Emissions from food waste comprise nearly 50% of the total emissions.

Drivers in this situation

In accordance with the “Trends in Solid Waste Management” report published by the World Bank Group, financing solid waste management systems presents a significant challenge, particularly in relation to ongoing operational expenses as opposed to capital investments, and such operational costs should be taken into consideration from the outset.

In high-income countries, the operating costs associated with integrated waste management, including collection, transportation, treatment, and disposal, typically exceed $100 per tonne. While lower-income countries may spend less on waste operations in absolute terms, with costs ranging from about $35 per tonne and sometimes higher, they often encounter more difficulties in recovering these costs.

Waste management costs are labor-intensive, and transportation costs typically range from $20 to $50 per tonne. The recovery of costs for waste services differs significantly across income levels, with user fees ranging from an average of $35 per year in low-income countries to $170 per year in high-income countries and full or nearly full cost recovery being primarily limited to high-income countries. User fee models may be fixed or variable based on the type of user being billed.

Local governments generally cover approximately 50% of the investment costs associated with waste systems, with the remaining funds being mainly provided by national government subsidies and the private sector.

The aforementioned costs are incurred in managing an integrated waste management system aimed at mitigating the pollution of soil, water bodies, and air caused by the indiscriminate disposal of waste without proper protection, which poses significant risks to human health. The costs associated with the adverse effects of waste pollution on public health, including deaths, illnesses, and the functioning of public health, are challenging to quantify.

Based on the “WASTE MANAGEMENT IN PAKISTAN” report, which is part of the technical support on waste and plastics provided to the Ministry of Climate Change, Pakistan, Government of Pakistan, through the SWITCH-Asia SCP Facility, by Dr. Saima Shafique & Tom Clark in 2022, Pakistan generates an estimated 48.5 million tonnes of solid waste annually, with megacities such as Karachi and Lahore contributing significantly to this figure. The national average for waste generation ranges from 0.24 to 0.65 Kg/per capita/day, growing at 2.4% annually.

However, there is a significant lack of plants to recover materials from waste, resulting in a considerable portion of municipal waste being burned or discharged outdoors, leading to severe air and soil pollution. Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is known for having the poorest waste management facilities in the country, causing significant concern among the populace regarding their health.

Air Pollution: The driver of a global health crisis
Composition of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in Pakistan (Source: United Nations Environment Programme, report on waste management in Pakistan)

It is a common misconception that technology alone can solve the problem of increasing and unmanaged waste. Although an important factor, technology is not a panacea and should only be considered one aspect of managing solid waste. Countries that have successfully progressed from rudimentary waste management methods, such as open dumping, have done so by selecting locally appropriate waste management solutions.

For example, the first step towards effective waste management can be achieved by actively participating all stakeholders, including policymakers, operators, and citizens, in organizing collection activities and separating materials to facilitate proper processing. In the case of organic waste, the establishment of compost and electricity-producing plants could be a viable option for effective waste management. This would be a significant first step towards integrated waste management.

To achieve this, each country must initiate training programs to equip individuals with the necessary skills to manage these activities.


*The author is the Coordinator of the Waste, Water, Environment for a Sustainable Society Section of the Interuniversity Research Centre for Sustainable Development (Centro Interuniversitario di Ricerca Per lo Sviluppo sostenibile)  

**The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views or position of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization neither endorses nor takes responsibility for the content of this article and its accuracy.