Only socialism can reverse global pollution crisis

Air pollution in Delhi, India

Almost everyone on the planet is breathing ‘dangerously polluted air’, causing millions of premature deaths every year. The deaths attributed to pollution are triple those from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Pollution levels are said to be spiralling because of industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation, but – as with the rising emissions fuelling runaway global warming – the dynamics of capitalism play an underlying role. BRIAN HENRY argues that it will take socialism, a planned economy serving human need instead of private profit, to reverse the crisis.

Air pollution is a complex mixture of particles and gases – sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water – which differs from region to region and even within cities, but fine particulate matter (PM) is the measure used as the chief indicator of pollution levels. While particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less (≤ PM10) can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, the even more health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (≤ PM2.5) which can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

New technology including satellite data has enabled closer monitoring of pollution levels in recent years. The Lancet’s Commission on Pollution and Health report found that pollution kills at least 9 million people a year, but said that the true total could be millions higher because the impact of many pollutants remains poorly understood. It said that one in six deaths is hastened by diseases brought about by toxic air, water, soils and workplaces, and warned that the crisis ‘threatens the continuing survival of human societies’.

Another study by the Health Effects Institute put the figure for premature deaths at a lower 6.1 million (based on 2016), but said that 7 billion people breathe ‘dangerously polluted air’ every day. That means 95% of the world’s population live in areas where PM2.5 exceeds the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, a recommended maximum that would reduce deaths compared to concentrations of 35 micrograms per cubic metre by 15%.

Ambient (outdoor) air pollution, largely from transportation and industry, was the largest contributor, accounting for 4.1 million deaths, a 19.5% rise from 3.3 million in 1990. The next biggest killer was pollution of water, often with sewage, which is linked to 1.8 million deaths as a result of gastrointestinal diseases and parasitic infections.

Workplace pollution, including exposure to toxins, carcinogens and second-hand tobacco smoke, resulted in 800,000 deaths from diseases including pneumoconiosis in coal workers and bladder cancer in dye workers. Lead pollution, the one metal for which some data is available, was linked to 500,000 deaths a year. The international working class is suffering in life and dying early for the sake of profits for capitalists.

Prof Philip Landrigan, who co-led the Lancet report, described the scale of deaths from pollution and the rising number of deaths from ‘modern pollution’ as ‘real shockers’, adding that ‘The current figure of 9 million is almost certainly an underestimate, probably by several million.

Scientists are still discovering links between pollution and ill health, such as the connection between air pollution and dementia, diabetes and kidney disease. Furthermore, lack of data on many toxic metals and chemicals could not be included in the analyses.

Landrigan said his biggest concern was the unknown impact of the hundreds of industrial chemicals and pesticides already widely dispersed around the world: ‘I worry we have created a situation where people are exposed to chemicals that are eroding intelligence or impairing reproduction or weakening their immune system, but we have not yet made the connection between the exposure and the outcome, because it is subtle. Pollution has not received nearly as much attention as climate change, or Aids or malaria – it is the most underrated health problem in the world.’

While deaths from ‘traditional’ pollution – from contaminated water and wood cooking fires – have been falling in ‘developing’ countries, traditional pollution could be overcome much quicker if states provided clean water and modern cooking equipment for the poor. But that would require socialism.

Rich vs poor

Poor and ‘developing’ countries which are going through rapid industrialisation are the worst affected by some distance, suffering 92% of pollution-related deaths. Air pollution deaths in south-east Asia are on track to double by 2050. India, where both traditional and modern pollution are severe, has by far the largest number of pollution deaths at 2.5 million. China is second with 1.8 million. Russia and the US are also in the top 10. Somalia, Central African Republic and Chad are the worst hit per 100,000 people. In terms of workplace-pollution related deaths, the UK, Japan and Germany are all in the top 10.

The vast differences between rich and poor nations are clearest when looking at concentrations of PM2.5. While the highest annual mean of PM2.5 micrograms per cubic metre in a major European city is Istanbul in Turkey at 33, the highest in the world is Zabol, Iran at 217. Many of the worst affected cities in India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China easily exceed 100. In contrast the worst cities in the US and Canada range between 13 and 18. In Australia and New Zealand, not one city exceeds the recommended limit of 10.

Since the US Clean Air Act was introduced in 1970, levels of the six major pollutants have fallen there by 70%. This can largely be put down to the fact that so much industry has been ‘outsourced’ to ‘developing’ nations, driven by imperialism’s need to export capital and live off profits generated by cheap labour and overseas assets. However, President Donald Trump’s administration, desperate to boost growth amid relative economic decline, has started to roll back regulations that protect the environment.

China’s war on smog

China’s ambient air pollution has begun to decline in recent years after the government took measures to reduce coal combustion, which fell from 80% of the country’s energy mix in 2010 to just over 60% in 2017. Beijing’s average daily concentration of PM2.5 was almost a third lower than two years before in 2017, with declines of about a tenth for some other major cities. That China’s pollution problem became so bad in the first place reflects the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of taking the ‘capitalist road’ to development and four decades of breakneck economic growth that saw it become the world’s number one exporter; that it has been able to tackle the problem much more effectively compared to other poor and developing capitalist countries reflects the fact that its state still wields greater control over capital.

China has been the global leader in electric vehicle sales since 2015, thanks to a mix of state subsidies and restrictions placed on producers of petrol and diesel vehicles. Worldwide, solar panel prices are plunging thanks to the sheer scale of China’s clean-energy investment. It is spending more than twice as much as the US; two-thirds of solar panels are produced in China. China is also leading on experimental innovation. In Shaanxi, northern China, the world’s tallest ‘anti smog tower’, a 100-metre high air-purifier has been installed. Impacting an area of 10 square kilometres, it produces 10 million cubic metres (353 million cubic feet) of clean air a day, reducing PM2.5 levels by 15%. Air is sucked into greenhouses around the base of the tower and heated up by solar energy. The hot air then rises through the tower and passes through multiple layers of cleaning filters.

Private vs public transport

Just a month into 2018, London’s air pollution reached its legal limit for the entire year. This is actually an improvement – in past years the limit has been reached within a week. Every Londoner breathes dangerous levels of toxic air particles, according to the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory. Every area of the capital breaches global standards for PM2.5, with most areas exceeding levels by at least 50%. The average PM2.5 is rated at 15 micrograms per cubic metre. Towns and cities across Britain are also badly affected. Port Talbot in Wales, with its steelworks, is notoriously bad, with WHO recording 18 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre there.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan is introducing measures to limit the use of wood-burning stoves – a needless middle class luxury – from 2025 and is tightening up regulations so that all new stoves from 2022 are as clean as possible. He has also set out a range of plans to tackle pollution from cars. The first stage, the new T-Charge, means petrol and diesel vehicles that breach the Euro IV emissions standards (generally those built before 2006) will be charged £10 a day for entering central London (in addition to the £11.50 Congestion Charge). Khan has called pollution levels in London ‘sickening’ but his tepid response is equally nauseous. Likewise, the plan by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to end the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040 is an absurd delay to what needs to happen.

Because cars, buses, vans and trucks were restricted from major routes for the day, harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions in central London plummeted by 89% during the 37th London Marathon on 18 April 2018, according to King’s College London. With studies suggesting that NOx emissions are directly linked to the premature death of around 40,000 people in Britain a year (around the same number of people who ran the marathon), the government is being urged to take new measures to curb outputs, including extra taxation on diesel cars and incentives to buy zero-emissions electric cars. But these demands, along with the limited regulations that have been put in place, are nowhere near enough. The evidence from the marathon shows that a transition needs to be made so that private transport is banned altogether and replaced by a highly-accessible public transport system that runs on renewable energy.

Capitalism vs socialism

Naturally, capitalism’s solution is to create new markets that treat the symptom instead of the cause. Entrepreneurs never let a good crisis go to waste. Bottled air, designer face masks and even ‘air shields’ designed to protect babies in their prams have all sprung up. (One company sells an eight-litre bottle of compressed Canadian air that holds 160 breaths for C$32 (US$24) per bottle.) The effectiveness of many such products have been dismissed by scientists as dubious at best.

The Lancet said that its research called for new regulations, an end to subsidies for polluting industries and proliferation of technology like smokestack filters. But the demands of capital accumulation will not allow any of this on a great enough level. An economic system requiring perpetual growth is bound to produce accompanying material expansion, including harmful by-products. That is why the growth in global carbon emissions has accelerated from 1% a year in the 1990s to 3% a year in the 2010s, despite increasing concern and regulations to tackle global warming.

As James Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics put it in The Guardian, an economy that depends on ‘3% growth each year – the minimum necessary for large firms to make aggregate profits... means every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.’

Under capitalism, moving away from fossil fuels, which still supply 80% of the world’s energy, would threaten the solvency of banks and pension funds. Renewable energy will increase its market share, but will not come close to displacing fossil fuels. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise by another 46% by 2040 because of increased consumption of oil, natural gas, and coal. While it is still profitable to burn fossil fuels the transition to clean and renewable energy will remain far too slow.

Whereas industrial farming under capitalism is renowned for using synthetic pesticides that poison soil and air alike – because they are cheap and therefore help to maximise short-term profits – Cuba has developed unique biopesticides that maintain soil fertility1. The socialist nation is also developing urban agriculture in order to reduce the dependency on long-distance transportation, thereby reducing emissions significantly.

Cuba provides a model that the rest of the world must learn from. Socialism, central planning and the reorganisation of society is needed to make the planet a clean and healthy place to live.



1. See: Socialism is good for the environment FRFI 214 April / May 2010

10 highest pollution-related death tolls (per cent of all deaths)

India: 2,515,518 (24.5%)

China: 1,838,251 (19.5%)

Pakistan: 311,189 (21.9%)

Bangladesh: 260,836 (26.6%)

Nigeria: 257,093 (18.7%)

Indonesia: 211,896 (13.5%)

Russia: 172,536 (8.6%)

United States: 155,155 (5.7%)

Ethiopia: 129,450 (19.1%)

Democratic Republic of the Congo: 123,942 (18%)

10 highest rates of pollution-related deaths per 100,000 population (per cent of all deaths)

Somalia: 316.3 (26.5 percent)

Central African Republic: 303.8 (18.9 percent)

Chad: 284.9 (25.6 percent)

South Sudan: 264.2 (23.2 percent)

Niger: 245.5 (24.9 percent)

Guinea-Bissau: 238.9 (20.1 percent)

Lesotho: 226.8 (13.0 percent)

Afghanistan: 211.7 (18.7 percent)

India: 196.2 (24.5 percent)

Burundi: 178.7 (20.4 percent)

(Source: The Lancet)


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