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Air Pollution

Worldwide, pollution is a leading cause of death and causes substantial economic damage.

World loss of life and economic damage, as of 2015, from major types of pollution. Monetary damages are based on willingness to pay to avoid harm and on lost productivity, but do not include ecosystem damages. Health damages may furthermore be underestimated, as they are based only on established pathways from pollution to disease. Source: Landrigan et al. [7].


Worldwide, particulate pollution is generated across the economy, especially from home combustion of biomass and coal. Forest and savannah fires are the major natural source of particulates.

Image Under Development: pm_source.jpg

Sources of world particulate emissions as of 2010. Source: Klimont et al. [6].

As of 2011, particulate air pollution in the United States caused nearly $900 billion in damages [5].

Damages from air pollution depend both on the nature of the pollutant and where it is released; generally, pollutants released in high population density areas do more damage. Following are estimated monetized damage from particulate pollution by source [5].

Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air pollution contributes to 1.6 million [4] to 2.9 million [7] deaths per year. The main source of indoor air pollution is cooking, particularly with traditional biofuels in poor countries, and the death toll is trending down with development [9].

Release of particulates from traditional and modern fuels. As traditional cooking is the main cause of indoor air pollution, the great opportunity to reduce harm from indoor air pollution is upgrading cooking to modern fuels, especially electricity. Source: Edwards et al. [3].


Freshwater and soil acidification are the reduction of pH in water and the soil, a process that harms ecosystems and soil fertility. Acid rain, a form of acidification, further harms ecosystems and buildings. Three main gases--sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and ammonia--are artificial causes of acidification, though some other gases play smaller roles [8].

Major anthropogenic drivers of acidification. Data on ammonia and NOx emissions may be unreliable due to age and difficulty of data collection. Sources: NOx from the UN [14], SO2 from Dahiya and Myllyvirta [2], NH3 from Sutton et al. [11], and acidification potentials from Lindley et al. [8].

Following are estimates of major sources of sulfur dioxide and ammonia emissions worldwide and nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States.

World sources of SO2 emissions as of 2018. Source: Dahiya and Myllyvirta [2]

World sources of NH3 emissions. Figures are as of 2008, except for emissions from application of fertilizer, which are as of 2000. Source: Sutton et al. [11].

United States sources of NOx emissions as of 2014. Source: U.S. EPA [13].

Due to pollution controls, NOx emissions in the United States [13], and SO2 emissions in the United States and China [2] are trending down.

Aerosol Loading

Aside from direct impacts on human health, atmospheric aerosols have effects on the climate that are not yet fully understood. Current natural and human-caused aerosol emissions are estimated as follows.

Natural and anthropogenic sources of atmospheric aerosols. Source: Tomasi and Lupi [12].

Most major classes of aerosols should cause short-term global cooling, by reflecting more sunlight than they absorb. The exception is black carbon, which causes warming [1]. A major source of uncertainty in the impact of aerosols is in their interaction with cloud formation [1]. If all aerosols from human activity were to cease, the result would be an estimated 0.5℃ to 1.1℃ global warming and a 2-4.6% increase in precipitation [10], in contrast to the nearly 1℃ observed since the start of industrialization and 2℃ target set by the Paris Agreement. The cooling effect motivates interest in intentionally releasing aerosols into the upper atmosphere to offset global warming.

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[1] Boucher, O., Randall, D., Artaxo, P., Bretherton, C., Feingold, G., Forster, P, Kerminen, V.-M., Kondo, Y., Liao, H., Lohmann, U., Rasch, P., Satheesh, S. K., Sherwood, S., Stevens, B., Zhang, X. Y. "Clouds and Aerosols". In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. 2013.

[2] Dahiya, S., Myllyvirta, L. "Global SO2 emission hotspot database: Ranking the World's Worst Sources of SO2, Pollution". Greenpeace Environment Trust. August 2019.

[3] Edwards, R., Karnani, S., Fisher, E., Johnson, M., Naeher, L., Smith, K., Morawska, L. "Review 2: Emissions of Health-Damaging Pollutants from Household Stoves". WHO Indoor Air Quality Guidelines: Household fuel Combustion. November 2014.

[4] Global Burden of Disease Collaborative Network. "Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 (GBD 2017) Results". Seattle, United States: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). 2018.

[5] Goodkind, A., Tessum, C., Coggins, J., Hill, J., Marshall, J. "Fine-scale damage estimates of particulate matter air pollution reveal opportunities for location-specific mitigation of emissions". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116(18), pp. 8775-8780. April 2019.

[6] Klimont, Z., Kupiainen, K., Heyes, C., Purohit, P., Cofala, J., Rafaj, J., Borken-Kleefeld, J., Schöpp, W. "Global anthropogenic emissions of particulate matter including black carbon". Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 17(14), pp. 8681–8723. 2017.

[7] Landrigan, P. et al. "The Lancet Commission on pollution and health". The Lancet Commissions 391(10119), pp. 462-512. February 2018.

[8] Lindley, A., McCulloch, A., Vink, T. "Contribution of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and Hydrofluoro-Olefins (HFOs) Atmospheric Breakdown Products to Acidification ("Acid Rain") in the EU at Present and in the Future". Open Journal of Air Pollution 8, pp. 81-95. 2019.

[9] Ritchie, H., Roser, M. "Indoor Air Pollution". Our World in Data. Rev. November 2019.

[10] Samset, B. H., Sand, M., Smith, C. J., Bauer, S. E., Forster, B. M., Fuglestvedt, J. S., Osprey, S., Schleussner, C.-F. "Climate Impacts From a Removal of Anthropogenic Aerosol Emissions". Geophysical Research Letters 45(2), pp. 1020-1029. January 2018.

[11] Sutton, M. et al. "Towards a climate-dependent paradigm of ammonia emission and deposition". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 368(1621): 20130166. July 2013.

[12] Tomasi, C., Lupi, A. Primary and Secondary Sources of Atmospheric Aerosol. Chapter 1, Atmospheric Aerosols: Life Cycles and Effects on Air Quality and Climate. November 2016.

[13] U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. "2014 National Emissions Inventory (NEI) Data". Accessed May 10, 2020.

[14] United Nations. "Environmental Indicators Of Air Pollution: NOx Emissions". Harvard Dataverse, V2. 2015.