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Pollution Prevention an Economic Boon, Says U.N. Report

Countries and cities that adopt air pollution busting measures can make significant economic savings, says the latest GEO Year Book from the United Nations Environment Program.

Economic gains include cuts in premature deaths and lower health care costs, as the toll from pollution-related diseases is brought down.

Other benefits come from reduced damage to agriculture and ecosystems like forests, along with less damage to infrastructure and public buildings from corrosive pollutants.

Energy generation and use is a major source of air pollution. Overall, the economic benefits of tackling air pollution are likely to be six times higher than costs of introducing pollution control measures in factories, power stations and cars, says the Year Book.

The findings come from work by the United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the experiences of Mexico City and Santiago, Chile.

The US EPA for example estimates that the benefits of America's Clean Air Act will be around $690 billion over the period 1990 to 2010.

The Santiago study assessed the financial benefits of compliance with the Santiago Decontamination Plan at $4 billion over a 15-year period.

They mirror a new report by the European Commission on achieving improved air quality standards by 2020.

The Commission estimates that an investment of around seven billion Euros to reduce air pollution will deliver benefits totaling Euro 42 billion as a result of "fewer premature deaths, less sickness, fewer hospital admissions and improved labor productivity".

The Commission's study says that "although there is no agreed way to monetize ecosystem damage, the environmental benefits of reduced air pollution will also be significant in terms of reduced areas of ecosystems that may be damaged by acidification, eutrophication and ozone".

The report estimates that meeting new targets will reduce damage to agricultural crops by Euro 0.3 billion a year.

The issue of the costs and benefits of fighting energy-related air pollution is highlighted in UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook Year Book 2006.

The GEO Year Book, including its Feature Focus on Energy and Air Pollution, is being presented to environment ministers attending the Special Session of UNEP’s Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum this week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Here, energy is among the key issues under discussion along with tourism, and boosting the capacity and technologies in developing countries so they can meet growing environmental challenges -- the so-called Bali Strategic Plan.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s executive director, said: "The world is crying out for more energy in order to lift people out of poverty and deliver the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals. But we know that we cannot rely on the energy structures of the past if we are to deliver a healthy environmentally stable world".

“We need to urgently diversify the world’s energy and electricity-generation base, we need to promote energy efficiency, we must foster more efficient and cleaner fossil fuel use alongside renewables and we must bring power to the rural areas,” he said.

“Governments must set the framework in which everyone -- from business and industry to local authorities, trade unions and the private citizens -- plays their part. The benefits, as the new GEO Year Book shows, are potentially huge, covering health, environment, improved management of natural resources, reducing the risks of climate change and, last but not in least, improved security regionally, nationally and at the level of households,” said Toepfer.

Key Findings from the GEO Year Book 2006

The GEO Indicators, which present a snapshot of humanity’s progress in managing our planetary habitat, support the findings that rising greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in ecosystem change, such as accelerating ice thickness losses of mountain glaciers, and that increasing exploitation of fisheries stocks is leading to serious depletion.

However, they also show that where action has been taken, there are positive results. The global consumption of chlorofluorocarbons, for instance, continues to decrease. The proportion of the Earth's surface affording some form of environmental protection to biodiversity continues to increase.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, concluded in 2005, found that approximately 60% of the ecosystem services examined were degraded or used unsustainably. In particular, about 25% of commercially important fish stocks were over-harvested and up to 25% of global fresh water use exceeds long-term accessible supplies.

Due to population growth and rising incomes, consumption of fish more than tripled from 1961 to 2001, rising from 28 to 96 million tonnes. With a large proportion of fish stocks already over-exploited, a number of countries are turning to marine fish farms to meet the rising demand for fish and shellfish.

Marine fish farming can supply rising demand, but sustainable practices are needed to reduce current levels of environmental damage. Fertilizer, undigested feed, biological waste and veterinary drugs used in marine fish farms are released into the oceans and surrounding waterways. Marine fish farms also create conditions for the spread of diseases and parasites, and - through the escape of farmed fish - introduce invasive species.

Climate change is expected to affect food production. Although the overall global net impact is difficult to predict, it is expected that many developing countries in tropical regions may suffer increased climate-related difficulties and increased variability of rainfall.

While climate change mitigation is necessary to avoid negative impacts on global food production, adaptive measures will also be needed, as some degree of climate change is inevitable. A 'Green Planet Revolution’ in crops and agricultural technology, with a focus on crops better suited to changing environmental conditions, could help reduce negative impacts.

Key Findings on Energy and Pollution from the GEO Year Book 2006

Two thirds of future growth in energy demand is expected to come from developed countries where at least 1.6 billion people are without access to electricity in their homes.

Over half of people in developing countries still rely on biofuel, including wood, dung and agricultural wastes, for cooking and heating, most of which is burnt indoors.

Between 10% and 20% of the fuel used in households on biomass stoves is not fully burnt, triggering a wide range of harmful air-borne pollutants.

Globally, indoor air pollution from fuels like charcoal is ranked in the top ten causes of mortality (or premature deaths) along with unsafe sex, high blood pressure and lack of malaria control.

Indoor air pollution may be responsible for up to 2.4 million premature deaths a year.

Key air pollutants, both indoors and outdoors, are fine particles which are linked with respiratory problems and heart attacks.

In homes burning biomass, particle levels can be between 300 to 3,000 micrograms per cubic meter. The European Union guideline is 40 micrograms per cubic meter.

Surveys of Asian cities indicate that 18 have average annual concentrations of particles above the EU limit.

Outdoor air pollution from industries and vehicles may trigger some 800,000 premature deaths a year with 65% occurring in the developing countries of Asia.

The Way Forward

The Year Book argues that there are huge efficiency gains possible from conventional power generation.

Conventional power stations waste between 40%-65% of the energy generated, losing it as heat.

Combined Heat and Power plants, in which part of the lost heat is used for industrial processes or as district heating schemes considerably reduces these losses.

Numerous other technologies are available to reduce harmful emissions. For example "fabric filters and electrostatic precipitators” used in the industry and power sector can reduce particle pollution by as much as 99%.

The Year Book also suggests that renewables, such as wind, solar and modern biomass-based fuels and electricity generation, are already competitive with fossil fuels like coal and oil if their wider environmental, social and fuel security benefits are factored in.

It also highlights the success of micro and mini hydropower systems for providing much need electricity in rural areas. For example in Nepal, 150 micro hydropower plants generating two megawatts of electricity are providing electricity to 15,000 families.

Biogas, produced by anaerobic digestion of wastes like dung, is also proving a success story in Nepal. Here 110,000 biogas plants have been installed for households with a further 20,000 being installed annually by private firms.

The success of this program stems from simple, easily copied designs along with good after-sales service, financial incentives for small firms and the availability of subsidies of up to $150 per household backed up by affordable micro-credit schemes.

The Year Book says that cleaner burning fuels, like liquid petroleum gas and kerosene, can deliver big improvements in indoor air quality in developing countries. This in turn could lead to huge health gains for the most vulnerable groups, namely women and children.

A survey of different indoor fuels shows that burning crop wastes produces about 100 times more particles than using a cleaner fuel like kerosene or liquid petroleum gas.

In the transport sector, tougher standards known as Euro 6 are being discussed for heavy duty vehicles in Europe, which could lead to particulate and nitrogen oxide reductions of between 50% and 90%, alongside big reductions in other pollutants.

Tougher measures are also being adopted in developing countries with large parts of Latin America and Asia on track to meet lower, but nevertheless important, new targets mirroring earlier European Union targets by 2010.

For example, cities like Delhi and Bangkok have shifted vehicle fleets to cleaner fuels like compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas.

Meanwhile new vehicle technologies such as hybrid cars can have a role. The first ones, introduced in Japan in the late 1990s, increased fuel efficiency by 11 km per liter. New ones have improved efficiency by up to 22 km per liter.

There is also renewed interest in blending ethanol and biodiesels made from crops with petrol and diesel to reduce exhaust emissions. Nearly 45% of petrol in Brazil, for example, is now ethanol. Almost a third of all gasoline sold in the United States is blended with ethanol.

However, Africa remains a continent of concern, with emission standards absent or almost non-existent, says the Year Book. The main improvement here has been the phase-out of leaded petrol, which was effectively achieved at the end of 2005.

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