In March, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) presented a report entitled "OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction" to the environment ministers of its member countries and key emerging economies. OECD experts peered 40 years into the future and asked what the world would look like, if current trends continue.
They forecast that the global economy would grow fourfold by 2050 while the share of fossil fuels in the energy mix would remain nearly constant at 85 percent. They also predicted some disturbing future trends, such as the doubling of premature deaths arising from excessive ozone and the near quadrupling of premature deaths due to particulate exposure.
"The OECD environmental outlook to 2050 projects significant cost to the health of urban residents by 2050 unless some dramatic changes are implemented," said Kumi Kitamori, OECD Environment Directorate counselor and project leader of the study.
The report predicts that air pollution will become the top environmental cause of premature deaths, eclipsing dirty water and lack of sanitation. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions are likely to increase also, as is the exposure to small particulates. Specifically, 70 percent of the urban population in emerging economies will be exposed to concentrations above 70 ug/m3 of PM10, the experts estimated. Smaller than 10 microns, these particulates can penetrate deep within the lungs, causing various health problems.
The negative impact on Asia is expected to be particularly acute, due to increasing urbanization in the region. The current situation is expected to deteriorate despite air quality improvements in the works and being planned, according to OECD projections. Specifically, the OECD predicts that 3.6 million people will die prematurely due to respiratory failures caused by particulate matter. Most of these deaths will occur in China and in India. Deaths due to ground level ozone exposure will total nearly 800,000, again mostly in China and in India.
The rest of the world will not be immune either. The OECD predicts that the developed world, with aging and heavily urbanized populations, will have one of the highest rates of premature death on a per capita basis from ground-level ozone, with close to 100 premature deaths per million inhabitants. That will be second only to India, where the toll will approach 130 premature deaths per million.
The OECD hopes that by issuing this report, it can influence not only its member countries, but also the rest of the world, to take on a different path. "One of the objectives for our report was to act as a call for action to change the status quo or the business-as-usual trajectories in the coming decades," Kitamori said.
There are some signs a course correction may be happening. For instance, the health impact warnings have prompted a review of Europe's current air pollution strategy, said Joe Hennon, a spokesperson on the environment for the European Commission.
"The Environment Outlook 2050 will provide an important global context for the EU air quality situation, as well as providing useful policy orientations," he said.
Sophie Punte, executive director of the Philippine-based environmental advocacy group Clean Air Initiative (CAI)-Asia, pointed to the implementation of improved fuel standards: Euro 4 in India and Euro 5 in China. However, there are issues going forward, she said. She cited the case of India, which has a split regulatory scheme. Parts of the country are operating under Euro 4, while the rest is under Euro 3.
"The real challenge will be moving beyond Euro 4, which will require the integration of technologies that encompass combustion; air, oil, fuel and water filtration; and exhaust after-treatment," Punte said.
Oil companies who were contacted for this article either failed to respond or declined to comment, even though historically cleaning up the air has involved better quality fuel. For example, oil majors such as ExxonMobil and BP suggested that any response should come from industry trade groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute (API) or the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), that represent oil producers and refiners, respectively, in the United States. The reason, said Robert Wine of the BP Press Office in London, is that the issues raised are not company specific.
For their part, the trade groups acknowledged having experts who cover health and environmental issues. But, no specialist from either the API or the AFPM was ready to comment on the OECD study.
"We haven't had an analyst review the report and so aren't able to offer an informed judgment about its conclusions," said Bill Bush, a member of API's press office. AFPM echoed this comment.
Beyond ozone and particulates, the OECD report also called for curbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. A binding international regulatory scheme encompassing these and other air pollution issues was one possible result of the recently concluded United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20. That, however, did not happen during the June 2012 conference.
"The outcome document did not go far beyond 'we affirm' statements," Arsenio Balisacan, head of the Philippine Council for Sustainable Development, wrote in an email reprinted, in part, in a newspaper.
He also noted that neither the Philippines nor other developing countries were happy with the results of the conference. The Philippines, however, remains committed to sustainable development because doing so is in the country's own interest, he said.
Elsewhere, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently won a major court case that upheld its ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions. After years of litigation, the agency is now preparing to issue the first-ever U.S. standards for regulating carbon dioxide emissions for both power plants and vehicles.
U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency had prevailed because it followed both the science and the law in taking reasonable actions to limit greenhouse gas pollution. In some ways, this type of local action could be the beginning of exactly what the OECD was hoping to achieve when it released its report.
As the OECD's Kitamori said, "What should really happen is for countries to actually implement policy changes that are needed to drastically cut pollution, global warming, over-consumption of resources, and so on in concrete terms at country and local levels."