The long read: air pollution, the invisible killer all around us

The climate deal has generated a lot of talk but the real conversation about air pollution is happening all around us.

The Ballon Generali is a tethered helium balloon which is used as a tourist attraction and also to measure air pollution in Paris. Jenny Bates for The National
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“Right now, you are breathing 57,000 particles per litre,” says Nicolas Roulier, reading measurements from a smartphone app and informing me that a lungful is roughly a third of a litre. “The small ones go into your blood and inside your brain, so you can become dizzy and have cancers.”

I had always imagined ballooning would be among the merry professions. But this balloon is not only a tourist attraction, it doubles as a laboratory for measuring Paris’s persistent air pollution.

When you climb to an altitude of 300 metres, Roulier says, you often look down on thick clouds of smog. One day in December 2013, the readings reached six million particles a litre – smoking eight cigarettes in a closed room could produce the same effect. The air was so thick you couldn’t see the nearby Eiffel Tower.

"It's horrible," says the pilot of the Ballon Generali.

Thankfully today is relatively clear, despite a faint, unnatural orange haze. The River Seine is laid out below like a fat brown worm, ribbed by bridges. The city is going to work.

In normal weeks, we could have flown to 300m. But Roulier is immune to our cajoling, flatly telling us he cannot go above 150m. Airspace restrictions have been imposed because Paris is hosting the United Nations climate summit.

A few days later, the talks will produce the first universal agreement on climate change. Despite the fanfare, the deal announced last weekend makes just a third of the cuts in carbon emissions needed if catastrophic global warming is to be avoided.

Roulier’s balloon does not measure carbon dioxide (CO2) – the world’s most important greenhouse gas. The climate effect of the particulate matter (PM) its sensors capture is peripheral. Yet these garden variety pollutants, minute flecks of sulfate, nitrate, ammonium, soot and organic materials, could have a profound, surprising impact on the quality of our response to this global threat.

This is because the cars, factories and power stations that create much of the bad air are also the most important contributors to climate change. Fixing one may mean fixing the other, said Lord Nicholas Stern, economist and author of the highly influential Stern report on climate change (the British government's Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, 2006).

“Air pollution is of fundamental importance. We are only just learning about the scale of the toxicity of coal and diesel. We know that in China, 4,000 people a day die of air pollution. In India it is far worse. Thirteen out of the 20-most polluted cities in the world are in India. Not one is in China. This is a deep, deep problem,” said Prof Stern.

“CO2 is colourless and doesn’t smell,” said Dr Bettina Menne, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) climate change programme manager. “But some air pollutants – you can see them, you can smell them, taste them. Having people complaining is creating significant political pressure, which is driving measures to reduce them, which in turn leads to a reduction in carbon.”

The long-standing failure to do anything about climate change is often blamed on the problem being too abstract or requiring too much foresight to inspire humans to act. But this ignores the fundamental tragedy (and indictment) of climate change: it is caused by the powerful, but affects the impoverished. Far from the sources of carbon, communities in the Philippines, Kiribati or Ethiopia understand climate change is not a prediction but the killer du jour.

For big polluters, air pollution is more immediately problematic. Parisians can smell the stuff spewing from exhausts. In Detroit, oil refinery smoke leaves a strange metal taste in the mouth.

The most important example of this, one that has many climate observers quietly optimistic, is China. In 2009 in Copenhagen, the UN attempted to sign a deal like the one just struck in Paris. Negotiations infamously fell apart due to a seemingly unbridgeable divide between the world’s two biggest carbon moguls – China and the United States.

“China has been aware of climate change for years and it also knows that it is one of the countries that are hit hardest. But this has not been able to drive enough action to curb carbon emissions,” said Li Yan, deputy programme director for Greenpeace East Asia.

But coming into the Paris accord, things could not have been more different. Last year, the two countries defused their tension with a bilateral agreement to cut emissions. When an 11th-hour spat between the US and developing countries threatened to derail the whole Paris agreement, China came to the rescue of its former foe.The reversal was made possible by a dramatic reassessment of Chinese national interest, driven in part by damnable air quality in almost all of the country’s major cities.

The air in Paris can be foul on occasion, said Jean-Baptiste Renard, the heavy-smoking pollution scientist who analyses the results from Roulier’s balloon, but at that moment the pollution in Beijing was many times worse than the limit that would signal an emergency in Paris. In the Chinese capital, he coughed between drags, “you don’t breathe, you eat the air”.

Now, said Li, many Chinese have air quality apps on their phones. By necessity, the phrase “PM” has shifted from the arcane into the household lexicon, as common as SPF (the protection factor of sunblock) has become in countries affected by the hole in the ozone layer. Starting in 2011, prominent citizens took to the social media service Weibo (China’s Twitter) to criticise the government for not acting on Beijing’s smog.

Stung, president Xi Jinping unleashed the full power of his government to shut down coal-hungry steel and cement plants around Beijing in early 2013. Power stations were mothballed or moved. Coal is the source of roughly 60 per cent of China’s carbon emissions and about half of China’s PM2.5 pollution (the highly dangerous particles below 2.5 microns in width that balloonist Roulier noted can infiltrate the membrane between the lungs and the bloodstream and are linked to cancer and heart disease).

While still extremely poor, air quality in eastern China has already improved by 15 per cent since last year. Simultaneously, the growth of China’s coal emissions has stalled. There were certainly other factors, including a general economic slowdown and shift away from heavy industry, but the scale and speed of the restructuring surprised even the most hawkish opponents of fossil fuels.

“Air pollution efforts definitely played a role, especially in terms of leveraging these policies and driving coal use cuts in the coastal regions which are the biggest industrial centres,” said Li.

There is at least one precedent to China’s pollution renaissance. The four-day London smog of 1952, which may have killed as many as 12,000 people, created a public outcry so intense that Europe-wide laws were adopted to control power sector pollutants and which eventually shifted much of the UK’s electricity production towards gas.

Doctors say it is difficult to get patients or politicians to worry about the public health impact of warming. This is despite the prestigious Lancet medical journal and University College London naming climate change the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. Air pollution, on the other hand, can be summed up with one devastating WHO statistic. Breathing poisoned outdoor air kills 3.3 million people a year, more than HIV, malaria, influenza and climate change combined. Health campaigners understand the implication of this democratic misery, levied upon rich and poor alike. The UK’s Climate and Health Council lead their climate change publicity with the message that cutting carbon would lead to cleaner, more breathable air.

In the US, where the debate on climate change is at its most tortured, air pollution is being used to cut through. In an appeal to climate-denying fellow Republicans entitled “I don’t give a **** if we agree about climate change”, former Californian governor and film star Arnold Schwarzenegger said: “Let’s assume you’re right [that climate change does not exist] ... Every day, 19,000 people die from pollution from fossil fuels. Do you accept those deaths? Do you accept that children all over the world have to grow up breathing with inhalers?”

Yet the global argument over climate change has mostly moved beyond US Republicans fighting over who can be most regressive. The overwhelming question is how to balance a safe climate with India’s increasingly ravenous appetite for new coal to provide electricity to 300 million citizens living in the dark.

Again, air pollution looms as a formidable challenge to a government desperate to build prosperity on fossil fuels. Indian cities dominate the WHO’s list of most-polluted cities. The annual average PM2.5 concentration for Delhi is 153 micrograms per cubic metre. This is close to three-times the Beijing mean and 15-times the WHO’s guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. A recent survey found the lung function of half the city’s 4.4 million children has been so badly damaged they will never fully recover. Unfortunately, in Delhi, the problem is not as simple as switching to renewable alternatives to coal. There is another insidious toxin hanging in the air.

Europe again provides an important precedent. In their 1990s zeal to slash greenhouse gas emissions, European governments pushed heavy subsidies toward less carbon-intensive, nitrogen oxide (NOx)-emitting diesel cars. Later, when the health impacts of NOx emerged, companies such as Volkswagen who had sold their cars as climate-friendly attempted to cover up how bad their problem actually was, using masking devices. This unravelled into a global scandal this year when the company was infamously caught by the US environment agency.

Now the pattern is being replicated in India, with subsidised fuel (diesel was 80 per cent cheaper than petrol in the capital in 2014) leading to a dramatic growth in the fleet of diesel cars and trucks.

On top of the already-nightmarish PM pollution, the poisonous NOx gases are a public health catastrophe the Indian government is desperately trying to put back into the bottle.

The National Green Tribunal, a judicial body, has demanded Delhi cease registering diesel vehicles, while engine efficiency ratings are being rushed through and major bypasses planned. Only some of this will be good for the climate.

Yet so far, only the middle classes, rather than the multitudinous poor, have become restive over air pollution, said Nitin Sethi, a Delhi journalist. One measure puts the proportion of Indians earning enough to be considered middle class at just 12 per cent.

Dr Niklas Höhne, the founder of NewClimate Institute, said this middle class would need to reach a critical mass before it came to dominate government policy concerns as it has in China.

According to McKinsey, a global consulting firm, just 4 per cent of urban Chinese were middle class in 2000. By 2012, it was 68 per cent. But a whole lot of coal and oil is sure to burn before that happens in India.

“It’s two conflicting objectives, one is air pollution and the other one is development. China is already at a more advanced stage of development. For Indians, the development problem is still much larger than the air pollution problem,” said Prof Höhne.

His research found that, outside perhaps China, almost no developing countries had properly considered air pollution benefits when making their pledges to the Paris conference. This creates a huge opportunity for new arguments to be made before the next time countries are asked to make the carbon pledge.

Floating above Paris, suspended beneath a helium balloon, it’s easy to be sucked into the historic talks happening in the city below. But the real conversation is happening in the air outside.

Karl Mathiesen is an environmental journalist based in London and writes The Guardian’s Eco Audit.