Air Pollution - An Ethical Perspective

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 4. June 2011 - 23:19
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Ethics    Topic: Air Pollution


We cannot live more than a few minutes without air. We must breathe whatever air is available around us, regardless of its quality. The fragile inner surface of the lungs where oxygen passes into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide is given off is particularly sensitive to toxins and irritants. Air pollution is thus of immediate concern to every human being.

Apart from those who voluntarily pollute their own air through smoking, most air pollution is inflicted by others, usually without recourse or compensation. It therefore goes against such universal moral precepts as the golden rule to do unto others as you would have others do unto you, and in theory should be punishable by law in most states if the guilty source could be identified. However since air quality usually reflects the sum of many diffuse sources, identifying the responsible party is difficult, and since almost everyone undertakes activities that release pollutants, we are all collectively responsible as well.

Different types of air pollutants reflect distinct ethical challenges. Air pollution from industrial sources is a significant problem in most countries. Since these are usually identifiable point sources, they are relatively easy to regulate. Several approaches are available to industry: pollution prevention through changes in operating practices, improved and preventive maintenance, or changes in raw materials; building good air pollution control systems into new or modified production processes; improving or replacing air pollution control systems in existing facilities; and reducing air pollution and improving energy efficiency through process change (which often lowers costs as well). The industry must weigh the cost of these measures, reflected directly in its balance sheet, against the benefits to the public for which it receives no return apart from the temporary good will that comes when a nuisance has been abated. While a responsible business will implement all reasonable measures to avoid harm to others, unscrupulous operators will simply hope that their emissions are unnoticed or untraceable.

Government experience in the development and implementation of air pollution prevention or reduction suggests that the multi-stakeholder cooperative approach has long range benefits, with government, industry, and NGOs agreeing on requirements with support and advice from technical and health experts, adopting an implementation time line, and undertaking periodic reviews and assessments of implementation progress. Where the government is honest and efficient, the businesses trustworthy, and the NGOs altruistic in their representation of the public interest, this works well.

The air pollution created by multiple small sources, whether motor vehicle exhausts, home and building heating systems, or agricultural wastes, can only be controlled by changes in consumer behaviour and in product technologies. There is often a circular debate whether consumer demand should lead to new products, or whether business should develop less polluting products and educate the consumers in their desirability. This usually reflects the morally questionable desire to pass the responsibility for change off to someone else while profiting from the status quo. Reinforcing ethical behaviour and strengthening corporate responsibility can thus strengthen action to reduce air pollution.

Another and quite different air pollution challenge is the indoor air pollution of the poor. Over half of people in developing countries still rely on biofuels, including wood, dung and agricultural wastes, for cooking and heating, most of which is burnt indoors. Between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the fuel used is not fully burnt, releasing a wide range of harmful air-borne pollutants at concentrations one or two orders of magnitude above safe limits. Globally, indoor air pollution of fine particles from fuels like charcoal is ranked in the top ten causes of mortality, causing up to 2.4 million premature deaths a year from respiratory problems and heart attacks (GEO Year Book 2006 Ethically this is a problem of poverty and should be addressed as part of any poverty reduction strategy. In the short term, simple improvements in clean-burning stove technology and household ventilation can help. Making clean and affordable energy available to every family should be a high priority.

Today, air pollution, whether the debilitating smog of urban areas, the "brown cloud" over Asia that is blocking so much sunlight as to affect agriculture, or the smoke people are obliged to breathe in their own homes, symbolizes the general failure of the major actors in society, including every individual, to take responsibility for the environmental and human health effects of their actions, often imposed far away. Any action strategy for air pollution control should therefore include a public education component. The freedom to breathe clean air should be seen as an inalienable human right and be defended accordingly.


Based on a statement from the International Environment Forum for the 14th Commission on Sustainable Development, May 2006 -

Article last updated 9 May 2006

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