Cost of air pollution in Malaysia may exceed RM28 billion, say experts

Schools in Johor were forced to close after two bouts of air pollution last year. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: Environmental experts agree that the annual cost of air pollution in Malaysia may be even higher than the “scary” RM28 billion estimated in a Greenpeace study.

A serious public health threat, air pollution is a leading cause of asthma, stroke, lung cancer and premature death. That impact on health also generate other economic costs such as the cost of treatment, management of health conditions and absence from work.

Greenpeace recently released a report which found that air pollution from burning fossil fuels costs economies US$8 billion (RM33.5 billion) a day. The sum amounts to about 3.3% of global gross domestic product (GDP), or US$2.9 trillion (RM12.1 trillion) per year.

In Malaysia, the impact attributed to fossil fuel-related air pollution ranges anywhere from US$2.8 to US$6.7 billion (RM11.7 billion to RM28 billion) a year, with 10,000 premature deaths – also another stark figure from the report. In terms of GDP, the report says Malaysia’s economy loses up to 1.9% to fossil fuel-related air pollution every year.

Since the report used data collected in 2018, Renard Siew, a climate change expert at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies, said it was inevitable that the numbers would have risen since then.

“Air pollution is expected to worsen year after year as industrialisation ramps up and we continue to burn fossil fuels,” Siew told FMT.

“It paints a very ‘scary’ outlook (and these) are definitely not statistics that we should be proud of,” he added.

Pointing out that the study only looked into effects of air pollution from fossil fuels, Matthew Ashfold, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, said the calculations did not include the effects of air pollution from fires, which are “obviously important” during the annual episodes of haze in Malaysia.

Stressing that more research needed to be done on the impact from smaller-scale domestic burning of waste in Malaysia, Ashford said there had been some well-publicised air pollution problems linked to the release of industrial chemicals lately.

Authorities were forced to close schools in the Pasir Gudang area of Johor last July – for the second time in three months – after air pollution from nearby factories resulted in students being hit with bouts of vomiting, nausea and breathing difficulties.

“Other studies have estimated additional large health and economic effects of haze episodes,” Ashford told FMT.

“New evidence is continually emerging on the effects of air pollution, such as harming mental health and performance at work, suggesting a broader drag on society,” he added.

Both Siew and Ashford called for more emphasis to be placed on developing public transport, renewable energy and cleaner fuels to help reduce the impact from air pollution.

Moving away from fossil fuel-based transport and electricity will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the pair said that plans needed to be integrated better and implemented on a larger scale.

Aidan Farrow, lead author of the report and an air quality scientist at Greenpeace International, told FMT that their analysis of solutions found that renewable energy and other alternatives to fossil fuel use were affordable and should be increasingly implemented.

Farrow noted examples in the United States and Colombia, where every US$1 invested in the US Clean Air Act yielded at least US$30 in return and a car-free initiative in Colombia yielded up to US$4 in health benefits for every US$1 invested.

“We found that the use of fossil fuels is already costing vast sums… The companies profiting from the production and consumption of fossil fuels do not pay that cost, it is a burden unjustly imposed on our societies,” said Farrow.

“Our comparison of the cost of fossil fuels against the returns from investing in clean air shows that money should not be a barrier to fixing the air pollution crisis.”