February 2020

A breath of fresh air to tackle pollution

Nine out of ten people around the world now breathe polluted air, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) – and it kills seven million people every year.

The WHO says air pollution is to blame for one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease – an equivalent effect to smoking tobacco and much higher than, for example, the effects of eating too much salt.

But air pollution is hard to escape – and microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, and damaging our lungs, heart and brain.

Fossil fuel combustion is a major contributor to air pollution – with engines continuing to pump out dirty emissions and half the world having no access to clean fuels or technologies. Yet the economic benefits of tackling air pollution are significant. In the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions, the health impacts of air pollution are estimated to cost more than 4% of their GDP.

The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supplies, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself. If you add in the effects of optimising operations in sectors such as road haulage and shipping, the benefits are clear – and the air will be too…

So what are we waiting for? Data on everything from harmful emissions and transport routes to weather and congestion has been available for some time. But it's only recently that we've been able to harness the power of big data to 'join the dots' and see the bigger picture – combining valuable information from a variety of sources to reveal valuable new insights.

Visualising and exploring a global picture of harmful emissions makes it possible to compare ports around the world, for example, and share best practice. Combined with sensors to monitor ships’ fuel tanks, the technology could unlock valuable analytical insights – looking at fuel consumption in different weather conditions and at different speeds to reveal optimum approaches to keep emissions to a minimum and improve the health of people living near busy ports.

On land, combining tachograph information with data on traffic congestion and the weather could lead to joined-up 'intelligent' route planning to optimise road haulage operations and dramatically improve air quality for city dwellers.

Worldwide, up to 14% of children aged 5-18 years have asthma relating to factors including air pollution, according to the WHO – and every year 543,000 children under five die from respiratory disease linked to air pollution.

There's never been a better time to take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture – while we still can.

You may like to read: Breathing new life into tackling maritime emissions

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