Mapped: Air Pollution Levels Around the World
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution leads to 7 million premature deaths every year.
Out of the six common air pollutants, particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter, or PM2.5, is accepted as the most harmful to human health. This is due to its prevalence in the atmosphere and the broad range of adverse health effects associated with its exposure, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.
With that context in mind, this visualization uses IQAir’s World Air Quality Report to map out the 2022 average PM2.5 concentrations in select major cities around the globe, expressed in micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m³).
Understanding the WHO Air Pollution Guidelines
Did you know that in 2019, only 1% of the global population lived in places where WHO global air quality guidelines were met?
Designed to protect public health from the harmful effects of air pollution, the guidelines cover a range of air pollutants, including particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
The healthy limits for PM2.5 are set at an annual average of 0-5 μg/m³.
|WHO Classification||Annual Average PM2.5 Concentration (μg/m³)||% of countries within classification, 2022*|
|WHO Air Quality Guideline||0 - 5||9.9%|
|Interim Target 4||5.1 - 10||18.3%|
|Interim Target 3||10.1 - 15||19.8%|
|Interim Target 2||15.1 - 25||28.2%|
|Interim Target 1||25.1 - 35||9.9%|
|Exceeds Target Levels||35.1 - 50||7.6%|
|Exceeds Target Levels||> 50||6.1%|
*Percentages are calculated as a proportion of the 131 countries that had sufficient air quality data and were included in IQAir’s World Air Quality Report in 2022.
According to IQAir’s World Air Quality Report, only 13 countries or territories met the recommended concentration of PM2.5 in 2022. Among them were Australia, Finland, Puerto Rico, Iceland, Bermuda, and Guam.
Above this guideline, many countries fell within the four interim targets, while nearly 14% recorded air pollution levels that exceeded all target levels.
The Effects of Air Quality on Mortality
While it can be a little difficult to grasp what the above concentrations represent, thinking of them in terms of their effect on mortality can shed some light on their significance.
According to the WHO, non-accidental mortality rates multiply by 1.08 per 10 µg/m³ increase in PM2.5 concentration, but only up to 35 μg/m³. Above that, mortality growth rates may not be linear, resulting in many more deaths.
Here is an example to highlight what that means.
- Say that, for a population living within the WHO PM2.5 guideline, the non-accidental mortality rate is arbitrarily set to 100 deaths for a given period.
- If this area’s PM2.5 concentration goes up to 10 μg/m³, putting them at Interim Target 4, they would see 104 deaths in that same amount of time.
- At Interim Target 3, where their PM2.5 concentration would be 15 μg/m³, they would see 108 deaths.
- At Interim Target 2, they’d see 117.
- Finally, at Interim Target 1, they’d see 126.
Beyond Interim Target 1 (above 35 μg/m³), deaths would potentially grow much faster. As of 2022, around 14% of countries report levels above this threshold, including Chad, India, Pakistan, Qatar, and Nigeria.
The State of Air Pollution Around the World
While many cities in North America and Europe have seen steady and relatively lower PM2.5 concentrations during the last few years, many cities (especially those in Asia) have been making strides in lowering their air pollution levels.
Nonetheless, many of them still record PM2.5 concentrations that are more than six times the WHO guideline.
|City||2022 annual average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³)||2018 annual average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³)|
|🇪🇬 Cairo, Egypt||47.4||N/A|
|🇮🇳 Mumbai, India||46.7||58.6|
|🇦🇪 Dubai, UAE||43.7||55.3|
|🇮🇩 Jakarta, Indonesia||36.2||45.3|
|🇳🇬 Lagos, Nigeria||36.1||N/A|
|🇨🇳 Beijing, China||29.8||50.9|
|🇵🇪 Lima, Peru||25.6||28|
|🇲🇽 Mexico City, Mexico||22.1||19.7|
|🇨🇳 Guangzhou, China||21.3||33.2|
|🇵🇭 Manila, Philippines||14.6||N/A|
|🇦🇷 Buenos Aires, Argentina||14.2||12.4|
|🇸🇬 Singapore, Singapore||13.3||14.8|
|🇮🇹 Rome, Italy||12.6||N/A|
|🇰🇪 Nairobi, Kenya||11.5||N/A|
|🇷🇺 Moscow, Russia||10.8||10.1|
|🇧🇷 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil||10.6||N/A|
|🇺🇸 Los Angeles, USA||10.5||14.4|
|🇺🇸 New York, USA||9.9||N/A|
|🇬🇧 London, UK||9.6||12|
|🇯🇵 Tokyo, Japan||9.2||13.1|
|🇨🇦 Toronto, Canada||8.5||7.8|
|🇨🇦 Vancouver, Canada||7.6||N/A|
|🇳🇴 Oslo, Norway||6.9||8.2|
|🇿🇦 Cape Town, South Africa||6.7||N/A|
|🇺🇸 Miami, USA||6.4||7.8|
|🇦🇺 Perth, Australia||4.9||N/A|
|🇦🇺 Sydney, Australia||3.1||7.6|
Most parts of the world did not meet the annual WHO recommendation for clean and healthy air in 2022.
However, the cost of inaction toward cleaner air is very high. In addition to the millions of premature deaths each year, the global cost of health damages associated with air pollution currently sits at $8.1 trillion.
Unfortunately, things that are integral to our quality of life, such as industrial activities, transportation, energy production, and agricultural practices, are also the leading causes of air pollution around the world.
As such, a multi-faceted approach to lowering pollution is essential to protect lives, especially to benefit those already more vulnerable to poor air quality, such as kids and the elderly.
Charted: The Safest and Deadliest Energy Sources
What are the safest energy sources? This graphic shows both GHG emissions and accidental deaths caused by different energy sources.
Charted: The Safest and Deadliest Energy Sources
Recent conversations about climate change, emissions, and health have put a spotlight on the world’s energy sources.
As of 2021, nearly 90% of global CO₂ emissions came from fossil fuels. But energy production doesn’t just lead to carbon emissions, it can also cause accidents and air pollution that has a significant toll on human life.
This graphic by Ruben Mathisen uses data from Our World in Data to help visualize exactly how safe or deadly these energy sources are.
Fossil Fuels are the Highest Emitters
All energy sources today produce greenhouse gases either directly or indirectly. However, the top three GHG-emitting energy sources are all fossil fuels.
|Energy||GHG Emissions (CO₂e/gigawatt-hour)|
|Natural Gas||490 tonnes|
Coal produces 820 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent (CO₂e) per gigawatt-hour. Not far behind is oil, which produces 720 tonnes CO₂e per gigawatt-hour. Meanwhile, natural gas produces 490 tonnes of CO₂e per gigawatt-hour.
These three sources contribute to over 60% of the world’s energy production.
Generating energy at a massive scale can have other side effects, like air pollution or accidents that take human lives.
|Energy Sources||Death rate (deaths/terawatt-hour)|
According to Our World in Data, air pollution and accidents from mining and burning coal fuels account for around 25 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity—roughly the amount consumed by about 150,000 EU citizens in one year. The same measurement sees oil responsible for 18 annual deaths, and natural gas causing three annual deaths.
Meanwhile, hydropower, which is the most widely used renewable energy source, causes one annual death per 150,000 people. The safest energy sources by far are wind, solar, and nuclear energy at fewer than 0.1 annual deaths per terawatt-hour.
Nuclear energy, because of the sheer volume of electricity generated and low amount of associated deaths, is one of the world’s safest energy sources, despite common perceptions.
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