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Urban pollution will be top environmental cause of early death by 2050, new report says


Protestors hold signs during a demonstration outside of the Chevron headquarters on February 15, 2011 in San Ramon, California.


Justin Sullivan

Urban air pollution will become the top environmental killer by 2050, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has found. The Paris-based policy group said Thursday that dirty air will kill more people worldwide each year than dirty drinking water or unsanitary living conditions.

A new report released by the group says that 3.6 million people are expected to die each year from breathing in air pollutants that affect the respiratory system. Most of those deaths will occur in China and India. 

"Action needs to be taken now to prevent irreversible damage to the environment," the report urges.

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Possible solutions include switching to cleaner forms of energy and changing the way fuel is taxed. Many governments, for example, give tax breaks to people who use diesel fuel because it has lower greenhouse gas emissions. But diesel fuel is actually worse for human health because it releases more "particulate matter" into the air, which harms the lungs, the Guardian reported.  

"In environmental terms, there is no reason to give diesel tax breaks," Simon Upton, environment director at the OECD, told the Guardian.

The report also found that greenhouse gas emissions will increase 50 percent by 2050 if world governments do not come up with new policies to fight pollution, such as carbon taxes. If nothing changes, renewable energy sources will continue to make up just 10 percent of energy sources, Reuters reported.

"Greening agriculture, water and energy supply and manufacturing will be critical by 2050 to meet the needs of over 9 billion people,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said in a press release