Air Quality Life Index - June 2022


The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) developed by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) is an index that measures particulate air pollution by a very significant metric: its effect on life expectancy. The 2022 annual update of the index was released on June 14, 2022. It was authored by Michael Greenstone, Christa Hasenkopf and Ken Lee, researchers associated with EPIC.

The index uses recent studies linking long-term exposure to air pollution and reduced life expectancy as the foundation for its calculations. It illustrates the impact of PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 micrometres or smaller) pollution on human lives and states that an average human being loses 2.2 years of life expectancy due to exposure to particulate pollution. The index also highlights regions that can make the largest gains in life expectancy by improving air quality. 

This 30-page document is divided into seven sections: Global Pollution Remained Flat Despite Pandemic Lockdowns, Underscoring the Health Threat (Section 1); South Asia Remains the World’s Pollution Hotspot (Section 2); Air Pollution is a Major Burden in Southeast Asia (Section 3); Central and West Africa is a Growing Pollution Hotbed (Section 4); With a Stronger Health Benchmark, Most Latin Americans are Breathing Polluted Air (Section 5); China’s War Against Pollution Continues Successfully (Section 6); and A Stronger Health Benchmark Uncovers Pollution Gaps in the United States and Europe (Section 7).


  1. The levels of PM2.5 barely fell – from 27.7 to 27.5 micrograms per cubic metre air – between 2019 and 2020 despite the economic slowdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic. South Asia actually saw an increase in pollution during the first year of the pandemic, the index states.

  2. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines released in 2005 had specified 10 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) as the upper limit on the acceptable level of particulate pollution people should breathe. The WHO revised its guidelines on September 22, 2021 to lower the limit to 5 μg/m3.

  3. Satellite-derived data from 2020 on the prevalence of PM2.5 showed that 80.2 per cent of the world’s population resided in regions where PM2.5 was higher than the 10 μg/m3. Moreover, 97.3 per cent of the total population resides in locations where pollution is over the revised level of 5 μg/m3.

  4. As per the index, India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia contribute to three-quarters of the global burden of air pollution. This is due to high levels of pollution found in these countries as well as the large populations. This also means, if pollution levels in these countries met WHO standards, an average citizen would live five years longer.

  5. Since 2013, around 44 per cent of the increased global pollution originated in India and the country presently has the highest health burden of air pollution among all countries in the world. Particulate pollution in India is about 11 times more – 56 μg/m3 – than the limits specified by WHO.

  6. The northern Indo-Gangetic plains, which are home to more than 500 million people (nearly 40 per cent of the nation’s population) are the most polluted regions in India, the index states. In 2020, the average annual concentration of PM2.5 here was 76.2 μg/m3. Delhi, the most polluted megacity globally, recorded average annual PM2.5 levels more than 107 μg/m3 or 21 times higher than WHO guidelines.

  7. While India has the highest health burden of air pollution, Bangladesh is the most polluted country in the world according to the index. The PM2.5 concentration in Bangladesh was recorded as 75.8 μg/m3 in 2020.

  8. The index points out several reasons for the increasing pollution in South Asia – industrialisation, economic development and population growth. It notes that the number of vehicles on the roads of India and Pakistan have increased by four times since the early 2000s whereas in Bangladesh they have increased threefold. Electricity generation from fossil fuels also rose by 300 per cent during 1998-2017 in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan combined.

  9. Latest satellite-derived data showed that African countries of Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo were also highly polluted. The index notes that combating HIV/AIDS and malaria accounts for around 10 per cent of health spending in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, air pollution is hardly recognised as an issue in the region.

  10. As per the stricter WHO recommendation of 5 μg/m3, 93.1 per cent of the Latin American population is exposed to particulate pollution levels that are higher than acceptable.

  11. The pollution in China fell by 39.6 per cent between 2013 and 2020. As per the index, as long as the changes are maintained, the average Chinese citizen’s life expectancy will lengthen by two years.

  12. In 2020, the average European was exposed to particulate pollution of about 11.2 μg/m3, which was in keeping with the European Union’s air pollution regulations of 25 μg/m3. The average life expectancy across Europe would increase by 7.3 months if particulate pollution were to fall to within WHO standards.

    Focus and Factoids by Ashish Singh.

    PARI Library’s health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India


Michael Greenstone, Christa Hasenkopf and Ken Lee


The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)


14 Jun, 2022