A child wears a face mask to protect from air pollution in Indonesia

A child wears a face mask in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia due to air pollution from peat fires.

(Photo: CIFOR/Flickr/cc)

Only 7 Countries Meet WHO's Air Quality Guidelines as Fossil Fuels Worsen Pollution

"The science is pretty clear about the impacts of air pollution and yet we are so accustomed to having a background level of pollution that's too high to be healthy," said an official at Swiss firm IQAir.

A Swiss air quality monitoring firm on Tuesday said its latest worldwide data reveals the need for more walkable cities and a swift transition away from planet-heating fossil fuels, as just 7 out of 134 countries were found to meet global standards for dangerous air pollution.

IQAir found that Australia, Estonia, Finland, Grenada, Iceland, Mauritius, and New Zealand were the only countries that met the World Health Organization's (WHO) guidelines for particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) pollution, which is made up of microscopic airborne particles and can become embedded in peoples' lungs and even their bloodstreams, especially in cases of high exposure.

Three territories—Bermuda, French Polynesia, and Puerto Rico—also met WHO's standard.

PM2.5 can cause or aggravate asthma and has been linked to worsened lung function, heart attacks, respiratory ailments, and irregular heartbeat.

While IQAir measured countries' air quality against WHO's guideline for "safe" PM2.5 levels—five micrograms per cubic meter—U.S. scientists found last month that there is no safe amount of PM2.5 for humans.

IQAir found that PM2.5 levels were highest in the Global South. Bangladesh was found to have more than 15 times the amount of PM2.5 pollution than what is advised by WHO, while Pakistan's level was 14 times higher. The most polluted metropolitan area in 2023 was Begusarai, India, and India had four of most polluted cities in the world.

But "things have gone backwards" in wealthy countries as well, Glory Dolphin Hammes, North America chief executive of IQAir, told The Guardian, particularly as planetary heating has fueled wildfires like those that stunned scientists in Canada and Europe last year.

Canada, long a leader in air quality, had a PM2.5 level of 10.3 in 2023, and air quality across North America was "significantly influenced by extensive Canadian wildfires that raged from May to October." More than 40% of Canadian cities recorded annual PM2.5 levels that exceeded 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Eleven percent, or 35 cities, exceeded 15 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to just a single city in 2022.

World Weather Attribution directly linked Canada's wildfires to the climate emergency, saying fossil fuel combustion and the resulting planetary heating made the blazes twice as likely.

The country's PM2.5 levels last year showed that governments "should act to make their cities more walkable and less reliant upon cars, amend forestry practices to help curtail the impact of wildfire smoke, and move more quickly to embrace clean energy in place of fossil fuels," Hammes told The Guardian.

"The science is pretty clear about the impacts of air pollution and yet we are so accustomed to having a background level of pollution that's too high to be healthy," she said. "We are not making adjustments fast enough."

Robb Barnes, climate program director for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said the report shows Canada is "no exception" as governments are urged to confront the fact that "climate change, pollution, and burning fossil fuels is disastrous for human health."

Air pollution is blamed for an estimated 7 million premature deaths each year, with countries in the Global South—where clean energy sources are less available for heating and other uses—reporting the most deaths linked to PM2.5.

Frank Hammes, global CEO of IQAir, noted that much of the Global South, including many countries in Africa, lack air quality monitoring mechanisms.

"A clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a universal human right. In many parts of the world the lack of air quality data delays decisive action and perpetuates unnecessary human suffering," said Hammes in a statement. "Air quality data saves lives."

In order to prevent more premature deaths linked to PM2.5 pollution, the report said, policymakers in Canada and other wealthy countries where air quality suffered in 2023 must take decisive steps to decrease PM2.5 emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles, power plants, and industrial processes, including:

  • Broadening the adoption of renewable, clean energy in public transportation systems;
  • Providing subsidies for battery-powered and human-powered modes of transportation;
  • Championing infrastructure projects that enhance pedestrian mobility; and
  • Introducing incentive programs to stimulate the adoption of clean air vehicles for commercial and personal purposes.

"IQAir's annual report illustrates the international nature and inequitable consequences of the enduring air pollution crisis," said Aidan Farrow, senior air quality scientist for Greenpeace International. "In 2023 air pollution remained a global health catastrophe. IQAir's global data set provides an important reminder of the resulting injustices and the need to implement the many solutions that exist to this problem."

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.