Air Pollution Costs Billions of Dollars a Year, and That’s Just the Start

The World Bank has released a new report†highlighting the fact that air pollution costs world governments billions upon billions every year and ranks among the leading†causes of death worldwide.

The estimates — drawn from a number of sources, including the World Health Organization’s most recently completed data sets compiled in 2013 — can for the first time begin†to examine the overall welfare cost of air pollution.

Specifically, researches†studied the amount of money that world governments must†spend on health emergencies, long term illnesses and chronic conditions caused by†air pollution. They also took†into account†missed work and unemployment subsidies.

The report finds†that, in terms of the economy, the burden is extremely high.

To be sure, some countries come out of this analysis relatively well off. For example, Iceland only loses $3 million of its gross domestic product to air pollution. Given that the country has a relatively small population and a slight†industrial profile, that’s probably not that surprising though.

Other countries, like Liberia, performed relatively well despite their low levels of†economic development.†Several African nations also have low overall air pollution impact costs. Despite mid-to-high populations, infrastructure is comparatively low density†in places like Malawi and Zimbabwe,†so perhaps this isn’t that surprising either.

It’s when we get to rapidly developing and “developed” nations that†the costs really start to mount up. For example, the United States is estimated to lose $45 billion every year due to air pollution, while the UK loses $7.6 billion annually. Germany comes in at $18 billion, though it will be interesting to see how the country’s†renewable energy strategy might alter that figure over the coming years.

China, one of the most rapidly developing nations in the world, is estimated to be losing a staggering 10 percent of its overall GDP, while India is not far behind at roughly eight percent.

Financial losses will, however, seem trivial when we look at the potential human cost of air pollution.

The World Bank estimates that global air pollution kills roughly five and a half million people every year, or to put that another way: it will kill one out of every ten people worldwide.

Air pollution is now the fourth leading cause of premature death in the world and, as the Guardian points out, it actually causes “six times the number of†deaths caused by malaria,” a fact that highlights the threat of air pollution most starkly.

It should be noted, though, that this figure does not necessarily reflect the rising danger to populations living in countries currently undergoing industrial and economic development. An obvious example is†China, a country with well-documented†air quality problems.

The World Bank estimates that, globally, the economy loses about $225 billion due to lost work days that result from those deaths. Add in welfare costs, or the money people are forced to pay in order to seek medical attention and other means of combating an air pollution problem, and that figure rises to a staggering $5 trillion.

Now, it may seem distasteful to talk about human lives in terms of economic loss, but it’s important to remember that without this loss,†more†money could be spent on health care for the general population.

Thus, air pollution has a much wider impact than we might first assume. While it certainly is true that developed nations suffer a significant burden from this problem, the financial impact on low and middle income nations is a staggering 59 percent of the total global welfare losses falling on those nations.

The World Bank†notes that about “90 percent of the population in low and middle income countries are exposed to dangerous levels of ambient air pollution.” Air pollution has been linked to†a number of health conditions, from cancer to autism-associated behavioral issues in children.

The World Bank’s†Laura Tuck, vice president for sustainable development at the organization,†stated, ďAir pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital, and constrains economic growth.”

Tuck continued:

We hope this study will translate the cost of premature deaths into an economic language that resonates with policy makers so that more resources will be devoted to improving air quality. By supporting healthier cities and investments in cleaner sources of energy, we can reduce dangerous emissions, slow climate change, and most importantly save lives.

Countries like China have made significant commitments to tackle their air pollution problems by restricting city development, creating green corridors and more, but critics warn that without curbing fossil fuel use, these measures can’t tackle the heart of the problem.

A number of so-called developed nations have also been criticized for failing to take appropriate action. The UK is a prime offender, considering that London has a persistent — and largely unaddressed –†air pollution problem.

This study serves to highlight that, in terms of economic burden and human health impacts, air pollution is not something we can afford to ignore.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago


Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Peggy B.
Peggy B2 years ago


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Barbara A.
Barbara A2 years ago


Nathan D.
Nathan D2 years ago

Too bad all this pollution doesn't kill the mosquitoes. Now we have respiratory disease AND malaria.

Donna Wood
Donna Wood2 years ago

The cost of pollution is everywhere; everyone knows intuitively these two are related. Are car manufacturers accountable for this? No. However, everyone is responsible for reducing pollution.

Margie FOURIE2 years ago

Thank you

william Miller
william Miller2 years ago