More than 3.3 million people around the world die prematurely from air pollution every year according to a new report published in scientific journal Nature, with road traffic calculated to be the biggest threat to those in the UK.

Scientists from Germany, America, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus have report that estimates the air quality related death toll could double by 2050 unless action is taken to counteract airbourne pollution.

Those countries worst hit are the rapidly developing economies of China and India which accounted for around 2 million premature deaths from air pollution in 2010. The United Kingdom’s total numbered more than 15,000.

The study, published on 16th September breaks down the greatest contributing industries to air pollution involving particulate matter, with residential and commercial energy having the largest impact in the worst hit countries. Power generation is the biggest cause of air pollution in America while, if equal toxicity for different emissions is assumed, in much of the UK and Europe, agriculture is the greatest contributor.

The study is one of the first to differentiate the different sources of air pollution by human toxicity and estimate the number of premature deaths cased by each pollutant. Weighting toxicity for different particulates, the United Kingdom’s biggest threat to pollution is surface transport, in particular road transport; the report calculates that carbonaceous aerosols in vehicle emissions are five times worse than that of inorganic compounds.

The report shows that, of the air pollution related UK deaths in 2010, more than 7,000 were because of particulates from the agriculture industry while road traffic accounted for just over 3,000. Power generation was almost 2,500 and industry more than 1,500. To compare with the worst hit country, China, the deaths from pollution caused by biomass burning (by far the smallest contributor) was almost 3,000 more than the UK total, while almost 450,000 people died because of residential energy pollution.

One unexpected finding is that agricultural emissions of ammonia had, according to the report, “a remarkably large impact on PM (particulate matter), and is the leading source category in Europe, Russia, Turkey, Korea, Japan and the Eastern USA. In many European countries, its contribution is 40 per cent or higher.” The ammonia levels are attributed to fertilizer use and farm animals.

Dr Ben Lane, director at Next Green Car, commented on the new findings saying: “We have known for decades that road transport is a significant contributor of air pollution and leads to thousands of premature deaths each year in the UK alone.

“While much progress has been made to reduce NOx and particulate emissions for new vehicles, even the latest Euro 6 standards for cars are not delivering the emissions reductions when used on real roads. Only electric vehicles are able to deliver the level of mobility we require and the emissions cuts we so desperately need.”

In its conclusion, the report states: “The urban population is expected to grow relatively rapidly from 3.6 billion in 2010 to 5.2 billion by 2015, and combined with increasing air pollution concentrations the health impacts will escalate. Our estimate of urban premature mortality by outdoor air pollution in 2010 is 2 million, increasing to 4.3 million by 2050. Urban population growth is responsible for part of this change, but the levels of air pollution in urban areas are also projected to grow rapidly.”

The report has been published just two months before the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2015, set to take place in Paris from the end of November, which will bring the world’s leaders together to create a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim to reduce the impact on global warming.

Sources: Nature Journal, Next Green Car