Benefits of Clean Air and Water

Posted on Posted in SDG 15

We wanted to follow up the previous blog by continuing the debate on the clean energy aspect while touching on some of the others goals. Last week we looked at the costs of producing fossil fuels, but this week we wanted to examine the economic and human costs of consuming fossil fuels. 

Pollution bears a heavy economic burden across the globe. Advanced economies, which often emit larger shares of pollution, spend massive amounts on healthcare caused by pollution, instead of fighting the pollution itself. An estimated 3.2% of global GDP per year is lost due to deaths related to poor air quality (Figure 1. CREA 2020). China and the US alone lose $900 billion and $600 billion, respectively, a year (WEF 2020). 

Taking a global perspective, it is clear there is much work to be done in ensuring clean air and water for all. As of 2014, OECD countries as well as China and India suffered $3.5 trillion per year due to premature deaths and healthcare costs caused by air pollution (OECD 2014), healthcare alone costing $1.7 trillion in 2010 (OECD 2014). Water pollution as well poses a continuous threat due to the downstream nature of its effects. According to the World Bank, poor water quality can hinder economic growth by as much as 33% of total growth (Figure 2. World Bank 2019). When water is mixed with high levels of nitrogen, a common problem in many developing and developed nations due to agriculture, early childhood exposure has been found to stunt growth and reduce future earnings by 2% (World Bank 2019). The continuous benefits of clean air and water creates a virtuous cycle within society, making its preservation all the more necessary. 

Some nations have robust laws and regulations preventing pollution’s lethal accumulation, while others lack the institutional frameworks necessary to prevent such build up. While it may seem expensive to tackle pollution, the benefits are higher than costs. In 2010 alone, the Clean Air Act in the United States prevented an estimated 160,000 premature deaths, 86,000 fewer hospital admissions, and prevented 13 million days worth of lost work (EPA 2020). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), benefits of a clean environment exceed investment by a ratio of 30 to 1 (Figure 3. EPA 2020).

While clean air and water should result from public utilities, state intervention by itself may not suffice. In order to achieve a sanitary future, a vigorous response is needed from both the private and public sector.

What’s needed from the public sector is a robust investment in water storage capacity, water sanitization, and for advanced economies, continuous renovation of water systems (see Flint, Michigan). Perhaps the money can be reallocated from fossil fuel subsidies. The private sector must taper emissions. This can be achieved through more efficient water use in agriculture, avoiding harmful energy extraction techniques, such as tar sanding and strip mining, and converting to carbon neutral means of doing business. 

The value of our natural resources is one that can’t be understated. Our endowments are passed down from generation to generation. The condition in which it is exchanged is solely determined by the current. To ignore this is not only jeopardizing our present, but also depriving the future.

Works Cited

EPA. “The Clean Air Act and the Economy.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 23 Oct. 2020,

McCarthy, Niall. “This Is the Global Economic Cost of Air Pollution.” World Economic Forum, 18 Feb. 2020,,percent%20of%20the%20world’s%20GDP.

Myllyvirta, Lauri. “Quantifying the Economic Costs of Air Pollution from Fossil Fuels.” Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Mar. 2020,

OECD (2014), The Cost of Air Pollution: Health Impacts of Road Transport, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD. “Rising Air Pollution-Related Deaths Taking Heavy Toll on Society, OECD Says.” OECD, 21 May 2014,

“Worsening Water Quality Reducing Economic Growth by a Third in Some Countries.” The World Bank, 20 Aug. 2019,