Home » As billions breathe unhealthy air, world requires robust regulatory push

As billions breathe unhealthy air, world requires robust regulatory push

by Madaline Dunn

Air pollution takes the lives of around eight million people each year and subjects even more to a myriad of health problems – and while severity may vary geographically, globally, the situation is dire. 

In fact, research from Swiss air quality tech company IQAir found that of the 134 countries and regions it surveyed, only seven are breathing “safe” air – and it’s only getting worse.

The world has been slow to act on air pollution, and while COP28 saw a pledge to transition away from fossil fuels, since its conclusion, the dialogue has shifted significantly, and fossil fuel expansion is powering forward full steam ahead. 

Globally, from a regulatory standpoint, we are beginning to see movement – however, these developments are far from robust and have not been without resistance.  

EPA introduces air quality rules in US

In the US, around one in four Americans are exposed to air quality that is categorised as “unhealthy” by the Air Quality Index (AQI) each year. In fact, a recent analysis from Redfin shows that Americans are even leaving their homes due to this poor air quality. 

Between 2021 and 2022, the real estate broker found that roughly 1.2 million more homeowners and renters moved out of than moved into US cities with a high risk of poor air quality.

Now, targetting a course correction, the US Environmental Protection Agency has announced a number of measures aimed at getting tougher on air quality standards.

Indeed, with transportation the largest source of US climate emissions, in March, the EPA announced the Biden-Harris administration had finalised its national pollution standards for passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and medium-duty vehicles for model years 2027 through 2032 and beyond, alongside its national greenhouse gas pollution standards for heavy-duty vehicles for model years 2027 through 2032. 

According to the EPA, the new national pollution standards will avoid more than seven billion tons of carbon emissions. Further, the final MY 2032 standards represent a nearly 50 per cent reduction in projected fleet average GHG emissions levels for light-duty vehicles and 44 per cent reductions for medium-duty vehicles, compared to the existing MY 2026 standards. 

In addition, the EPA noted that standards are expected to reduce emissions of health-harming fine particulate matter from gasoline-powered vehicles by over 95 per cent. 

Meanwhile, the national greenhouse gas pollution standards will help avoid one billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, reducing “dangerous air pollution,” especially for the 72 million people in the US living near truck freight routes, it said. 

These developments follow the EPA’s strengthening of the annual health-based national ambient air quality standard for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in February, down from a level of 12 µg/m³ to 9 µg/m³. 

PM2.5 – small particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or less – is the deadliest air pollutant, and according to the EPA, when fully implemented in 2032, the rules could prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths and 270,000 lost workdays per year.

New rules face industry backlash

However, these new changes have faced considerable backlash. On the new vehicle measures, critics have accused the government of overreach and called the standards “ill-informed.” 

US Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va called the national pollution standards an “EV mandate” and said that it has failed to ensure the security of supply chains and lacks a “realistic transition plan” to address domestic infrastructure needs.

Similar arguments have been levelled against the heavy-vehicle pollution standards. 

Indeed, American Trucking Association (ATA) president and CEO Chris Spear similarly cited the lack of charging infrastructure and restrictions on the power grid, claiming that the post-2030 targets are “unachievable” given the current state of zero-emission technology. 

In an effort to convince the American public, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers even launched a “major seven-figure issue campaign” across seven critical states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, Ohio and Montana and the Beltway, which it said was aimed at “informing Americans about the Biden administration’s efforts to ban new gas, diesel and flex-fuel vehicles from the US market.”

However, the new rules do not ban specific fuel types or modes of transportation, nor does the EPA have the power to do so. Instead, they require vehicle manufacturers to progressively reduce emissions from new vehicles for model years 2027 through 2032. 

The national ambient air quality standards have been met with an equal amount of pushback, as seen in the National Association of Manufacturers television ad that rallied against the move and arguments it will stifle innovation and hinder economic development.

The rules, however, are also scaled back from original proposals, despite environmentalists and scientists calling for the tightening to go further, with the rules failing to adjust the 24-hour pollution limit. It is also worth noting that the thresholds are still above WHO recommendations. 

Others have welcomed the new standards. Kate Johnson, Head of US Federal Affairs at C40 Cities, said: “Today’s EPA rule will cut pollution and protect the health of millions of Americans, including city residents that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution.”

Adding: “The EPA’s new soot pollution standards will improve life for urban residents, from preventing sickness and death to increasing economic productivity.”

However, the outcome of the US election could potentially have big implications for the new rule change, considering that the Trump administration rejected the move toward tougher soot limits. 

The global context 

Globally, action to limit air pollution and improve air quality isn’t happening quickly enough, and it’s key to note that recent studies have even indicated that the WHO-recommended level isn’t safe.

Outside of the US, other measures are taking shape. In the EU, for example, lawmakers recently reached a preliminary agreement for a new Ambient Air Quality Directive (AAQD). 

However, the revised version does not fully align with WHO recommendations and also contains provisions enabling member states to request a postponement of ten years.

In response, a group of scientists warned about the impact of delay around the AAQD, calling for immediate action to align with the AQG by 2030. The group outlined that a ten-year delay in reaching 10 μg/m would result in an excess of 327,600 premature deaths.

Elsewhere, countries that regularly rank top for the worst pollution have, to varying degrees, begun triggering anti-pollution measures. Delhi, India, for example, introduced air pollution restrictions, while last year, Pakistan approved the National Clean Air Policy (NCAP) and Punjab Clean Air Plan (PbCAP) – although experts say these measures fall short.

In the MENA, countries that rank among the top most polluted, including Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Iraq, also require more stringent regulations targeted at lowering pollution levels. 

Moreover, while pollution is a silent killer among the global population, as the climate crisis intensifies, it’s also weakening the planet’s resilience, which is now well outside the “safe operating space for humanity” having exceeded six of nine key measurements of its health, according to one study. 

In light of these grim facts, robust and wide-reaching policy has never been more important. However, competing corporate interests continue to undermine this. 

Counteracting the narrative that many corporations are pushing in the shadow of the new EPA rules, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in February: “We do not have to sacrifice people to have a prosperous and booming economy.”

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena 

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