In 2015, the various forms of pollution were estimated to have killed 9 million people, while wreaking total economic damages of $4.6 trillion. As such, researchers are currently working to draw global attention to the health costs of toxic air, water, and soil.
Pollution takes an economic toll in the following manner: illness and death caused by pollution negatively impact productivity. As a result of this, economic output of underdeveloped nations can diminish by as much as 1% to 2% annually.
Here, scientists and politicians disagree. Whereas scientists unequivocally believe that controlling pollution is a highly advantageous endeavor for all societies, politicians have a more difficult time translating that fact into action, given the myriad of "powerful vested interests" they must navigate. Such vested interests are typically big businesses, which do their best to generate doubt about science, and paralyze governments' efforts to establish standards, taxes, and laws that seek to utilize the scientific findings.
Fortunately, some leaders are moving in the right direction by directing national attention to the environment, as opposed to the economy. One such leader includes Chinese President Xi Jinping. In China, roughly 20% of all deaths can be attributed to pollution, with India and Bangladesh's percentage even higher. In the US however, under 6% of all deaths are due to pollution. The different kinds of pollution include airborne pollution, smog, contaminated water, soil, and occupational exposures to chemicals. Furthermore, pollution-related diseases tend to disproportionately afflict children, and the poor.
Historically, the US is one example of a nation that successfully improved its economic standing, after taking measures to cut back on pollution. After Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, American GDP has increased by 250%, while common air pollutants have decreased by 70%.
Just as the negative health effects of certain kinds of pollution can be long-term, so too are their impacts on future generations. For example, the burning of leaded gas releases lead into the air, which can be inhaled by children, who then may suffer cognitive impairment, growing into comparatively disadvantaged adults who would then be unable to reap as many economic benefits over the course of their lifetimes.
But currently, nations uphold economic systems that view both natural resources and human capital as "abundant and expendable." By that same measure, those who plunder these resources do so with little concern for the consequences of their actions. Furthermore, the benefits that are gained from widespread pollution are concentrated only among a "small group of industries that don't bear the external costs of their activities."
According to the Lancet Commission, pollution's death toll reduced a nation's GDP by "up to 2% in low-income countries, and in smaller degrees farther up the income scale." Economists have now placed a pricetag on pollution, by asking people how much they would pay to avoid premature death by pollution. In total, the sum of the money that people were willing to pay was equal to $4.6 trillion, but even this disregards the price of treating non-death inducing illness caused by pollution. Furthermore, it disregards all of the yet-unknown health dangers created by pollution, for which scientists have not yet reached a conclusion.
Notably, as bigger companies in the industries that pollute the heaviest have increased their environmental awareness, the smaller, local companies in developing nations have been more resistant. Because the people who run these companies aim to simply make a living, they are less inclined to adapt their methods in accordance to an agenda tailored to maximize the benefit of the global community.