Strong air pollution policies lengthen life expectancy, new data shows

Falling short of WHO guidelines could cut more than two years from average lifespan

The same clean air policies that can help reduce fossil fuel emissions can also add up to five years to people’s lives in the world’s most polluted regions, and more than two years to lives on average globally, according to new data from the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI).

The new AQLI data underscores how human health suffers as a consequence of particulate pollution, and the potential effects of inaction.

The data suggests that if particulate pollution is not reduced to meet guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), the average person is set to lose 2.2 years of life, while those in more polluted regions could lose five years or more. Reducing particulate pollution, then, means both cleaner skies and longer lifespans.

Working unseen inside the human body, particulate pollution—a direct result of burning fossil fuels and wildfires caused by a hotter climate—has a more devastating overall impact on life expectancy than communicable diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, behavioral killers like cigarette smoking, and even war.

Recent events have made clear how human behavior can impact the climate—and how better policy can change the way we live. Since 2020, COVID-19 lockdowns have brought blue skies to often-polluted regions of the world, while wildfires exacerbated by a drier and hotter climate have sent smoke and haze to the normally clean skies of cities thousands of miles away.

“During a truly unprecedented year where some people accustomed to breathing dirty air experienced clean air and others accustomed to clean air saw their air dirty, it became acutely apparent the important role policy has played and could play in reducing fossil fuels that contribute both to local air pollution and climate change,” said Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics.

A leading energy and environmental economist, Greenstone created the AQLI along with colleagues at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), where he serves as director.

According to EPIC’s research, China is an important model country for showing that policy can produce sharp reductions in pollution in short order. Since China began its “war against pollution” in 2013, it has reduced its particulate pollution by 29 percent—making up three-quarters of the reductions in particulate air pollution across the world.

As a result, China’s people have added about 1.5 years onto their lives, assuming these reductions are sustained. To put China’s success into context, it took several decades and recessions for the United States and Europe to achieve the same pollution reductions that China was able to accomplish in six years.

China’s success demonstrates that progress is possible, even in the world’s most polluted countries. In South Asia, the AQLI data reveal that the average person would live more than five years longer if pollution were reduced to meet the WHO guideline.

The benefits of clean air policies are even greater in the region’s most polluted areas, like Northern India, where 480 million people breathe pollution levels that are 10 times worse than those found anywhere else in the world.

In Southeast Asia, air pollution is emerging as a major threat in metropolises like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta. The average resident in these cities stands to gain two to five years of life expectancy if pollution levels were reined in to meet the WHO guideline.

At the same time, in Central and West Africa, the effects of particulate pollution on life expectancy are comparable to those of well-known threats like HIV/AIDS and malaria yet receive far less attention. For example, in the Niger Delta area, the average resident is on track to lose nearly five years of life expectancy if pollution trends continue.

“The events of the past year remind us that air pollution is not a problem that developing countries alone must solve,” says Ken Lee, the director of the AQLI. “Fossil-fuel driven air pollution is a global problem that requires strong policies at every front—including from the world climate negotiators who are meeting in the coming months. The AQLI’s latest data provides leaders and citizens alike with the justification for strong clean air policies in the form of longer lives.”

—Adapted from a story first published by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.