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City air

If you are reading this in a big city, the air you are breathing may be doing you harm. Though over 50% of the world’s population now live in urban areas, only 2% of the global urban population lives with acceptable concentrations of particulate matter, or PM, which can cause breathing and respiratory diseases, cancer and premature death. 

Children, older persons, and people with lung ailments such as asthma or chronic lung disease are especially vulnerable to the effects of PM. 

How can governments respond? In many countries, regulatory standards and various economic instruments such as taxes and tradable permit schemes are being deployed. Also, voluntary programmes aimed at replacing ovens and heaters and retiring old vehicles that are highly polluting have been introduced in several countries.

Nevertheless, the OECD Environmental Outlook Baseline projects the number of premature deaths associated with exposure to PM10 and PM2.5, two especially harmful suspended particulates, to increase from just over 1 million worldwide in 2000 to over 3.5 million in 2050. Most of this increase will be in the major emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India. Overall, the average concentrations in all regions are already higher than the WHO Air Quality Guideline and this will still be the case in 2050. What’s more, population growth in urban areas means that the percentage of people living in cities with concentrations above the highest WHO target of 70 μg/m3 will be even higher by 2050, despite projected air quality improvements.

See: www.oecd.org/environment/outlookto2050

©OECD Observer No 290-291, Q1-Q2 2012