UNICEF: 300 Million Children Live in Toxic Air Pollution; Culprits Include Fuels, Vehicles

11.01.16 | Blog | By:

A UNICEF study released this week found that almost 300 million children live in areas around the world with the most toxic levels of outdoor air pollution – six or more times higher than international guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Another 2 billion children, including those in developed regions such as North America and Europe, live in areas where outdoor pollution exceed WHO guidelines (shown in the figure below). The culprits: vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels and waste burning.

According to UNICEF, South Asia has the largest number of children living in these areas, at 620 million, with Africa following at 520 million. The East Asia and Pacific region has 450 million children living in areas that exceed WHO guideline limits. But the proportions will change as Africa increases industrial production, and urbanization and traffic increases. More African children will be exposed to increasing levels of air pollution. Incredibly, by midcentury, 33% of the children in the world will be located in Africa, according to UNICEF.

The figure below shows primary air pollutants and their sources in 2015. Energy from transport was an emissions contributor across the board, but most critically for particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).


Key findings from the study include the following:

1. In 2012, air pollution was linked with 1 out of every 8 deaths globally, or around 7 million people, as the figure below shows. Around 600,000 of those were children under 5 years old, according to UNICEF.


2. Air pollution can considerably affect children’s health. Studies have shown that air pollution is strongly associated with respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, bronchitis and asthma, among others. It can also exacerbate underlying health issues and prevent children from going to school, and there is emerging evidence that it can disrupt physical and cognitive development. Left untreated, some health complications related to air pollution can last a lifetime, UNICEF says. The figure below paints a scary picture of the long-term cumulative impacts of air pollution on impacted children as they move into adulthood.


3. Air pollution is worsening in many parts of the world as countries continue to industrialize and urbanize. I have been covering this issue for some time now because air pollution continues to be a major driver for cleaner fuels (including biofuels, advanced biofuels and advanced alternative fuels) and vehicles (including the internal combustion (ICE) and zero emission vehicles (ZEVs).

The fact that air pollution is worsening, and that children will bear the brunt of those impacts, will no doubt put renewed energy and focus into policy measures to stop it. Some of those measures, as we have seen this year, have already focused on banning the car or limiting its use in city centers, improving walkability, increased support for public transport, etc. (See posts e.g. Oct. 24, 2016; Oct. 13, 2016; Sept. 29, 2016; Sept. 27, 2016; Aug. 12, 2016.)

This is what industry really needs to watch and take seriously. Areas cited in this report include those where cleaner fuels and vehicles have long been introduced. And yet, some of these same areas still struggle with transport-related air pollution. If and as air pollution worsens and increases, and as the contribution to it from transport increases, will countries simply be forced to ban or limit vehicles for personal transport altogether? At least in large cities? Or, will they compromise by permitting ZEVs? Either way, it’s a trend like this that stands to help further the implosion of conventional fuel demand (and even other alternatives like biofuels). (See post from Oct. 27, 2016.)

As if to underscore my point, UNICEF said in the report:

“Cutting back on fossil fuel combustion and investing in renewable energy sources can help reduce both air pollution and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The multiplier effect of reducing fossil fuel combustion on the wellbeing of children stands to be enormous.”

The figure below (left) projects emissions of criteria pollutants out to 2060 and shows (right) projected premature deaths from ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5) to 2050.


4. Children are uniquely vulnerable to air pollution – due both to their physiology as well as to the type and degree of their exposure. Their lungs are in the process of growing and developing, making them especially vulnerable to polluted air, and their immune systems are still developing. Poor children are among the most at risk, and globally, air pollution affects children in low- and middle-income countries more, as well as those in lower-income urban communities. Lack of access to good or at least adequate health services only exacerbates the risk for children.

UNICEF urged world leaders attending the upcoming COP22 meeting in Marrakesh to take action in the following areas:

  • Reduce air pollution by adopting “such measures as cutting back on fossil fuel combustion and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy resources.”
  • Increase children’s access to healthcare.
  • Minimize children’s exposure to air pollution, which include measures like better waste management to reduce open burning and cleaner cook stoves in the home.
  • Improve air pollution monitoring.

With respect to transport, UNICEF noted that better support for public transport, cleaner fuels (especially for diesel) and tougher vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards could improve air quality and mitigate GHG emissions. The figure below summarizes UNICEF’s view of these measures (other non-transport measures were highlighted as well).


Source: UNICEF, October 2016

There seemed to be a plug for hybrid and electric vehicles as well in the context of rapid motorization in countries such as China, India and Nigeria:

“As economies industrialize, demand for vehicles is likely to increase. The effect of this can go in two directions: either those cars can be reliant on fossil fuel combustion, or they can be reliant on renewable energy. The difference could be huge for children in those affected countries. Hybrid and electrical vehicles can dramatically reduce the air pollution from vehicles. In the three countries with the highest child populations (India, China and Nigeria), the number of cars is likely to grow considerably in the coming decades, which will be particularly marked in Africa, and substantial too in South Asia. For comparison, if those countries were to have the same motorization rate per capita as the United States of America currently, the number of vehicles would increase by nearly 40 times for India and Nigeria, and 8 times for China. This also does not account for the growth in population over the coming decades. The imperative for green investments could not be stronger.”

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