Political heavyweights such as Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon name climate change the “defining issue of our times” and “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” Yet, the biggest environmental killer we face is actually indoor air pollution.
More than one third of the world’s population – 2.9 billion people – still burns wood, charcoal and dung indoors to keep warm and cook food. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4.3 million people in 2012 lost their lives due to indoor air pollution. Compare these figures to the losses from global warming. The new report from the UN Climate Panel recognizes that “at present the worldwide burden of human ill-health from climate change is relatively small compared with effects of other stressors.”Estimates from the WHO and others suggest that between 30 and 150 times more people are killed due to indoor air pollution than global warming. Yet, the latter dominates the headlines.
In the 20th century alone, 260 million people were killed by indoor air pollution, which is more than the losses of the century’s many wars. Together with 21 of the world’s top economists, I analyzed the impact of a wide range of global problems, including air pollution, over a 150-year time span. We calculated the cost of these problems in percent of global GDP in order to compare the progress over time. The good news is that we’re seeing quite some improvements on air pollution. Whereas in 1900 the total cost of this problem was as high as 23 per cent of global GDP, today it is around 6 per cent of world GDP and we believe this number will fall to 4 per cent in 2050.
Thanks to increased access to electric stoves and heaters, the problem today is much less prevalent than before. It is therefore regrettable that some climate-worried Western politicians have second thoughts about further electrification because of CO2 emissions. Instead of helping the 2.9 billion people gain access to cheap and plentiful electricity, thus combating our biggest environmental problem, we insist that developing countries focus on renewable energy. For example, the U.S. has decided to no longer support the building of coal-fired power plants in developing countries.
Besides being hypocritical (in the Western world we get only 1.2 per cent of our energy from solar and wind), we deliberately end up choosing to leave about 70 million people in darkness and poverty. An analysis from the Center for Global Development found that if the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the main U.S. development finance institution, spends the next $10 billion on gas electrification, we can help lift 90 million people out of poverty. If on the other hand they continue their preference for investments in solar, wind and other low-emissions energy projects, the same $10 billion can help just between 20 and 27 million people.
Electrification has ended the scourge of indoor air pollution in the rich world, saving millions of lives. In the West, we take our supply of reliable electricity for granted. At the same time, we put our climate concerns before giving access to modern energy to those who desperately need it and die from indoor air pollution. It’s about time we get our priorities right.