Air pollution is worse with climate change

Background - 1 July, 2016
Air pollution — already a silent and serious killer — is set to become worse still under climate change. This is especially bad news for those most vulnerable: the elderly, children and people with existing illness. The good news is a healthier world lies within our grasp. We can fight both air pollution and climate change with the shift to 100 percent clean, safe renewable energy[ — a hugely important double win for the health of people and our planet.

Two problems with a common source

Burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — causes climate change. Using these dirty fuels also causes air pollution that chokes our cities and makes us sick. Motor vehicles and power plants that burn these dirty fuels are major sources of air pollution.

These polluting fuels make air quality more hazardous by:

  • releasing into the air very small unburned pollution particles (also called particulate matter or PM) with extremely harmful health effects

  • producing pollutants that contribute to more harmful ozone smog forming

A deadly serious problem

Outdoor air pollution already causes premature death for about 2.6 to 4.4 million people each year globally.

Unfortunately, the people we should most protect are also most vulnerable to air pollution: children, the elderly, and people who already have health conditions such as heart and lung diseases, asthma and allergies.  

How climate change makes air pollution worse

Because air pollution depends on weather, as well as pollutants, climate change can worsen this serious problem in important ways.

Warmer air worsens smog

When certain pollutants react with sunlight and heat, hazardous ozone smog can form. Temperature increases caused by climate change speed this process up. This means climate change could lead to more frequent and severe smog episodes.

Stagnant air increases, air quality gets worse

Stagnant air is another weather feature that can lead to more hazardous air quality. When air becomes stationary, soot, ozone and dust build up.

Under climate change, more than half of the world's population could be exposed to weather with more stagnant air. Regions in India, Mexico and the Amazon could have 40 more stagnant air days each year by the century's end.

Other features of a complex problem

Here are some other ways climate change is expected to worsen air pollution.

  • Smoke from wildfires intensified by climate change will make air pollution worse.

  • Where increased temperatures and carbon dioxide cause flowers to bloom earlier, more allergy-causing pollen and mould spores may be produced.

  • Warmer air may also increase dust levels.

Scientists are still working to understand the many and complex ways climate change affects air pollution.

Good news: a common solution to both problems

The problems of air pollution and climate change have a common source but also a common solution.

When we break our remaining ties to polluting and dangerous energy systems based on fossil fuels, we will create a double win for people and the planet. We'll clear the air of pollution, and we'll prevent a climate crisis.

What is Greenpeace doing?

Greenpeace is driving an urgent shift away from coal, oil and gas — the polluting energy systems making us sick. This includes phasing out oil and other dirty transport fuels. We're pushing for 100 percent clean, safe energy from the sunwind, and other renewable sources. That includes a transport revolution to fuel all our transport needs with 100 percent renewable energy.

Help us make the leap to a future built on 100 percent renewable energy — our best chance for healthy people and a healthy planet.

What can you do?

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