Air pollution endangers billions, but a handful of technologies can make air clean again this decade

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You would probably not willingly drink contaminated water or eat rotten food. But every day billions of people breathe polluted air and do not stop to think twice about it. That’s why air pollution is slashing the lives of billions of people around the world by up to six years, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Chicago. With only a third of the world’s countries home to legally-mandated outdoor air quality standards, the air pollution crisis has accelerated alongside climate change and biodiversity loss.  

Gaseous emissions, both the kind that affect the climate on a global level and those that affect individual health, might be the biggest threat there is to human health and welfare. But over the next decade, the transformation of energy, transportation and food systems will provide the biggest spur to restore safe and clean air, far faster and more effectively than simply tinkering with legislation. 


Devastating Health Impacts of Poor Health Quality 

Studies have estimated that outdoor fine-particle pollution from fossil fuel combustion alone – primarily coal, gasoline, and diesel fuel – are responsible for more than 10 million deaths annually, or one in five deaths around the world. 

But the burden of air pollution is greater than just deaths. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide “nearly 9 out of 10 people are exposed to air pollution levels that put them at increased risk for diseases including heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer and pneumonia”. 

Medical studies have also linked poor air quality to asthma, autism, low sperm counts, increased likelihood of irreversible vision loss, and an increased severity of mental illness.  

In the U.S. alone, air pollution causes almost 250,000 premature deaths every year. Vox quoted Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois as saying “that’s nearly three times the number of lives we lose in car accidents every year. It’s twice the number of deaths caused by opioids in the past few years. And it’s even more than the number of Americans we lose to diabetes each year.”  

In fact, this is conservative. US traffic deaths in 2020 were the highest in thirteen years, with over 42,000 people killed. So, air pollution actually killed about six times the number who died in car accidents.  

It’s not just the combustion of fossil fuels that contributes to the problem, but also dust from agriculture and pollution from animal waste and from fertilizer. The Breakthrough Institute writes, “meat, dairy, and other livestock production together make up one of the top five sources of air pollution deaths, with an impact larger than the exhaust from trucking.” 


Technology Disruptions Could Dramatically Improve Air Quality  

New research by RethinkX, in our report titled Rethinking Climate Change, suggests that disruptions already underway in the energy, transportation, and food sectors will have extraordinary implications for global air quality. Just eight technologies can directly eliminate over 90% of net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide within 15 years: and the effect on air quality, and therefore human health, will be profound. 

Solar panels, already the cheapest form of electricity in many markets, combined with wind turbines and battery-based power storage are dramatically changing electricity markets. According to the US Energy Information Agency, consumption of coal for electric power production fell in the US from over 1000 million tons in 2008 to 436 million tons in 2020, a drop of 58% in twelve years.

A self-driving shuttle bus in Oslo, Norway, from 2020

Cheaper lithium-ion batteries and self-driving technologies are driving a rapid revolution in the automotive industry, causing electric vehicle (EV) sales to charge ahead as combustion vehicle sales stagnate. Electric vehicles will not replace combustion vehicles one-for-one because they are cheaper to operate than gasoline cars. And if an EV can drive itself, each taxi or delivery truck could become much cheaper per distance traveled than a human-driven vehicle. The portion of travel miles covered by EVs could switch as quickly as from horses to cars in the early 1900s, most of which took only about a decade. And cleaner, quieter urban air would make travel by small two- and three-wheeled electric vehicles more popular. 

Cellular agriculture (making meat and fat cells without the use of animals) and precision fermentation (brewing proteins and other small molecules using microorganisms) are together revolutionizing food production. This is not some future fantasy: dairy products made with real cow’s milk proteins which did not come from cows are already on market shelves. 

In Rethinking Climate Change, the authors point out that “by 2030, the number of cows in the United States will have fallen by 50% and the cattle farming industry will be all but bankrupt.” The Netherlands is already considering making major changes to animal agriculture on environmental grounds. Under a new government proposal, livestock numbers could be cut by a third, in part to reduce ammonia pollution that presents an air quality hazard. 


An Impossible Burger, a vegetarian hamburger containing ingredients made from precision fermentation


Feedback Loops Will Make These Disruptions Happen Quickly 

But this is only the beginning. The loss of ‘social license’, where it becomes increasingly difficult to continue business as usual, represents just one of the powerful feedback loops that could help drive the rapid adoption of these new technologies, and rapid abandonment of the old ones.  

Studies have shown that higher fine-particle levels in the air cause people to stay inside more, and therefore run their air conditioners and air purifiers for longer. Better air quality could reverse this cycle. Clean electricity production and clean transportation would reduce the need to run air conditioners and air purifiers, reducing total electricity demand and making it easier to eliminate another portion of combustion-based power generation.  

Studies have also shown that lower air pollution means greater production of power from existing solar panels, especially in areas where air quality is often poor. Cleaner air would mean more clean electricity production, thus resulting in even cleaner air. So, lower air pollution levels have the effect of both increasing power production and decreasing power demand simultaneously. 

Even in places with typically good air quality, clean technologies are having a measurable positive impact. The city of Oslo, Norway, has seen air quality improve in recent years as the number of electric vehicles on the streets has increased dramatically. 

Rather than address individual problems in a ‘Whack-a-Mole’ fashion, accelerating the disruptions in energy, transportation, and food sectors will give us the best chance to dramatically improve human health in urban areas and air pollution. That’s because they will transform problematic sectors at source, including from farms, combating heart disease, stroke, and a variety of other maladies, reducing traffic fatalities, and improving the efficiency of clean power sources while also reducing total power demand. And that would be a breath of fresh air. 

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