The year 2020 will be remembered as tragic by people around the globe because of COVID-19. But another less publicized public health crisis disrupted lives that year. 

In 2020, air pollution claimed over 160,000 lives in the world’s five largest cities. The economic cost of air pollution from reduced productivity for just these five cities has been estimated to be over $85.1 billion.

Many of these deaths were preventable – they may not have occurred had these 160,000 people not been exposed to air pollution. These sobering estimates speak to the need for greater public emphasis on air pollution prevention and control as well as investment in air cleaning and monitoring technologies.

In 2020, air pollution claimed over 160,000 lives in the world’s five largest cities.

In response to this global crisis, Greenpeace Southeast Asia partnered with IQAir to create the Cost of Air Pollution estimator. 

Using the IQAir air quality database, drawn from over 80,000 sensors worldwide, the estimator calculates deaths and economic costs incurred in select cities during 2020.

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Created by Greenpeace Southeast Asia based on IQAir data.

 

Air pollution’s avoidable and lethal impacts have been felt globally, sparing none of the world’s five largest cities.    

  • Tokyo, Japan: 40,000 deaths, $43 billion USD lost
  • Delhi, India: 54,000 deaths, $8.1 billion USD lost
  • Shanghai, China: 39,000 deaths, $19 billion USD lost
  • Mexico City, 15,000 deaths, $8 billion USD lost
  • Sao Paulo, Brazil: 15,000 deaths, $7 billion USD lost

Total Deaths: 163,000
Total Cost: $85.1 billion USD

These five cities have a combined population of 137 million people, or nearly 2 percent of the world’s total population.

The IQAir platform measures ground-level particulate matter (PM2.5) in real time. This data is then combined with a city’s population, health data, and scientific risk models to determine mortality and cost estimates.

PM2.5 is particulate matter pollution measuring 2.5 microns or less. These microscopic particles are considered a grave threat to human health. PM2.5 can be inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream, impacting both the respiratory and cardiovascular system.1

Global health costs of air pollution

Though early 2020 lockdowns for COVID-19 slowed global air pollution by reducing travel and associated pollutants, the impact proved to be brief. The Cost of Air Pollution estimator demonstrates that air pollution still claimed many lives in major metropolitan cities around the world. 

New Delhi, Tokyo, and Shanghai were the top three cities for estimated deaths among the selected cities.

  • Delhi, India: 54,000 deaths
  • Tokyo, Japan: 40,000 deaths
  • Shanghai, China: 39,000 deaths
  • Beijing, China: 34,000 deaths
  • Mumbai, India: 25,000 deaths

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Pictured: Shanghai’s air quality index levels on 14 January, 2021 at 1 pm (PST) varied from moderate downtown to unhealthy in suburban areas.

In Thailand, more than 15.2 million people in six cities were strongly impacted by air pollution, experiencing over 13,000 deaths. Bangkok accounted for most of the losses, with 9,400 avoidable deaths recorded in 2020.

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Pictured: Bangkok’s air quality on 15 January, 2021 at 9 am (PST). The air quality index levels for the city range from "unhealthy for sensitive groups" to "unhealthy for the public."

Four cities in Indonesia with a population of 17.5 million people lost 19,750 people. In Jakarta, 13,000 people died due to air pollution, or 1,200 people per million.

While the COVID-19 lockdowns may have provided a temporary respite by reducing air pollution, emerging research suggests that exposure to pollutants may have increased COVID-19 deaths. 

A 2020 study published in Science Advances found that if a U.S. county had a history of higher exposure levels to PM2.5 (an increase of 1 μg/m3 in the county’s long-term PM2.5 exposure), that county experienced an 11% increase in their COVID-19 mortality rate.2

Global economic cost of air pollution

The economic costs of air pollution for humanity have been devastating.

Air pollution’s economic consequences carry huge implications for people and their communities, including:  

  • reduced work hours and shifts
  • increased health care costs from disability, asthma, and chronic respiratory disease
  • lost household income from caregiving for ill family members

For communities, air pollution’s economic costs can translate to lowered economic productivity from work absences and overall reduced life expectancy.

The Cost of Air Pollution estimator considers these factors, among others, in calculating a city’s economic cost.

In terms of absolute cost, five global cities lost an estimated $135 billion USD to air pollution in 2020. Tokyo, Los Angeles, and New York City carried the highest air pollution losses among the cities examined in 2020.    

  • Tokyo, Japan: $43 billion USD lost
  • Los Angeles, California: $32 billion USD lost
  • New York City, New York: $25 billion USD lost
  • Shanghai, China: $19 billion USD lost
  • Beijing, China: $16 billion USD lost

Los Angeles, California had the greatest per capita air pollution cost in the world, at $2,700 USD per person.

Residents in the next three cities after Los Angeles experienced $1,400 USD per capita or more in air pollution costs:

Combined, five global cities lost an estimated $135 billion USD to air pollution in 2020.

Two cities in northern India lost at least 13 percent of their gross domestic product, or GDP, in 2020 to air pollution:

  • Lucknow: 14 percent of GDP
  • Delhi: 13 percent of GDP

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Pictured: On 13 January, 2021 at 2:30 pm (PST), New Delhi registered an air quality of 346 and Lucknow registered 262. Numerous northern Indian cities were rated with very unhealthy to hazardous air.

India’s projected national GDP for 2020 was $2.6 trillion USD, the sixth highest GDP in the world.3 But despite India’s high-ranking national GDP, northern Indian cities carried a disproportionate amount of financial burden from air pollution compared to residents of other global cities.  

The takeaway

Poor air quality is taking a calculable toll on the world’s largest cities. The calculations provided through the Cost of Air Pollution estimator capture a real-time snapshot of the key health and economic costs that result from air pollution. These estimates tell us that not enough is being done to save lives and improve global quality of life.

Air pollution’s extreme human and financial costs demand greater need for air quality activism, accountability, pollution prevention, and clean air technologies.

You can find out where your city ranks among the world’s most polluted cities. Monthly PM2.5 air quality index levels for the prior year are provided for thousands of cities.