Religion & Liberty Online

The Most Deadly Environmental Problem in the World Today (Is Not Climate Change)

Woman-child-cookingA United Nations panel recently released a report on the single most important environmental problem in the world today — and yet you’ve probably read nothing about it in the news.

Instead, you’ve likely heard about another U.N. report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That report claims that global warming could have a “widespread impact” by the year 2100. Yet in 2012 millions of people died — one in eight of total global deaths — as a result of environmental problem occurring today: indoor air pollution.

According to the World Health Organization’s latest report air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk, and the main cause is entirely preventable:

Around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (i.e. wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung) in open fires and leaky stoves. Most are poor, and live in low- and middle-income countries.

Such inefficient cooking fuels and technologies produce high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

Household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels results in 4.3 million premature deaths each year – almost three times as many as died from from AIDS. Additionally, more than 50% of premature deaths among children under 5 are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.

Some environmental activists argue that the solution is for cleaner stoves. While this might be part of the solution, it is, as Bjørn Lomborg says, “essentially telling the poor to live with slightly less polluting open fires in their homes.” What the world’s three billion energy-poor people really need is what those of us in the West take for granted: cheap electricity to cook their food and heat their homes.

The only truly effective long-term solution to energy poverty is economic growth. Long-term economic growth, however, is dependent on increasing economic freedom, the rule of law, and access to markets in developing areas. Such preconditions are much more difficult to implement than bans on incandescent light bulbs, which is why they don’t capture the imagination of most environmental activists.

But if we truly care about the poor — especially the world’s poorest women and children — we’ll spend less time fretting about future, potential ecological threats and more time working to solve the immediate, deadly environmental problems that each year kill millions of our global neighbors.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).