Two of the planet's main environmental problems, climate change and air pollution, are closely linked. But before we establish this link, we must start by distinguishing clearly between the two, because they're not the same thing. While the sources of air pollution and climate change are indeed generally similar, i.e. current methods of transport, the production and consumption of goods and energy etc., there are slight nuances that differentiate the two.
Firstly, climate change is the global variation of the Earth's climate due to natural causes and human activity. Global warming is accelerated by greenhouse gases caused by human activity. The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄) and nitrous oxide (N₂O). Although CO₂ is the main gas contributing to climate change, it is not harmful to human health.
Climate change has many consequences with global impact, mainly due to changes in climate patterns, the rising sea level and more extreme meteorological phenomena. Climate change is not only an environmental phenomenon, its negative impacts have social and economic consequences, too.
For its part, air pollution is the presence, in the air, of substances or particles that imply danger, damage or disturbance for humans, flora or fauna. The main sources of atmospheric contamination are tropospheric ozone gases (O3), sulfur oxides (SO2 and SO3), nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2), benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) and particulate matter (PM). These gases result mainly from emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels (including emissions generated by transport), industrial processes, burning of forests, aerosol use, and radiation.
Road traffic is one of the most significant sources of both greenhouse gases and air pollution.
A common origin
Both problems are a result of the same context: the current energy model. Both climate change and air pollution are worsened by the burning of fuel, increasing the CO2 emissions which cause global warming. Meanwhile, the generation of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2), sulfur oxides (SO2 and SO3) and particulate matter, is the main reason the air is contaminated.
Social harm of climate change and air pollution
Another characteristic shared by both phenomena is their serious impact on society. Climate change causes drought, flooding, deforestation, homelessness and extinction of animal and plant species… resulting in famine and disease. Atmospheric pollution causes six million deaths a year worldwide and a quarter of lung cancer cases, heart attacks and strokes, representing 0.3% of world GDP in health costs, as well as reducing productivity at work.
We already know that air pollution triggers illnesses such as kidney failure or infection, and now more and more studies are establishing links between air pollution and other illnesses, such as osteoporosis. In other words, the effects air pollution on health extend far beyond respiratory or cardiac disorders. According to a report by the European Court of Auditors, more than 10 times as many people die as a result of air pollution than are killed in road accidents.
And it’s getting worse
Air pollution and climate change tend to get worse over time. The World Health Organization (WHO) guideline states that daily exposure to particulate matter PM2.5 per cubic meter of air should not exceed 25 micrograms, yet this figure is surpassed in many cities around the world.
This website allows you to view real-time air quality data for any city around the world. Meanwhile, the graph below shows the countries that emit the most air pollution.
Air pollution and climate change are getting worse. The impacts mentioned above will be felt with increasing severity as time goes on if we do not change the energy model. The effects will be more devastating for both the planet and for people’s health. CO2 accumulates and can last at least 100 years in the atmosphere. The global level of air pollution could increase fivefold over the next half-century if the situation is not remedied.
Energy transition as a common solution
The final comparison we can make between climate change and air pollution is the most hopeful: both share a common solution, the introduction of a more sustainable energy model. Energy efficiency, more renewable energy, the use of electric vehicles, less resource consumption, application of measures from the Paris Agreement… will ultimately serve to reduce the polluting emissions that raise the temperature of the planet and make the atmosphere such a polluted environment.