Deadly small particle pollution in four of five nations exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations last year despite COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a report released Tuesday.
The partial or complete shutdown of transport and industry for months at a time in 2020 reduced average levels of so-called PM2.5 pollution across the world, including in major cities, the IQAir quality report found.
Concentrations of the life-shortening particles – cast off by traffic pollution and burning fossil fuels – dropped 11% in Beijing, 13% in Chicago, 15% in New Delhi, 16% in London, and 16% in Seoul.
At least 60% of India's cities were more breathable last year than in 2019, and all of them had cleaner air than in 2018.
"Many parts of the world experienced unprecedented – but short-lived – improvements in air quality in 2020," said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and co-author of the report.
"This meant tens of thousands of avoided deaths from air pollution."
But only 24 of 106 countries monitored met WHO safety guidelines, said the report, based on the world's largest database of ground-level air pollution measurements.
China and many South Asian nations experienced PM2.5 pollution several times greater than WHO recommended thresholds, and in some regions the concentration was six to eight times higher.
Twenty-two of the world's more polluted cities are in India.
Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Afghanistan averaged annual PM2.5 concentrations between 77 and 47 microgrammes per cubic meter (mcg/m3) of air.
The United Nations says PM2.5 density should not top 25 mcg/m3 in any 24-hour period, or 10 mcg/m3 averaged across an entire year.
The most polluted capital cities in the world last year were New Delhi (84 mcg/m3) and Dhaka (77), with Jakarta, Kathmandu, Islamabad, Hanoi and Beijing all in the top 20.
About half of all European cities exceed WHO's suggested limits.
Air pollution levels were made worse in 2020 – tied for the hottest year on record – by climate change, the report noted.
Wildfires fuelled by scorching heatwaves led to extremely high pollution levels in California, South America and Australia.
Air pollution shortens lives worldwide by nearly three years on average, and causes more than 8 million premature deaths annually, earlier studies have found.
The WHO calculates 4.2 million deaths from outdoor air pollution but has underestimated the impact on cardiovascular disease, recent research has shown.
Average lifespan is cut 4.1 years in China, 3.9 years in India, and 3.8 years in Pakistan.
In Europe, life expectancy is shortened by eight months.
PM2.5 particles penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. In 2013, the WHO classified it as a cancer-causing agent.
"This report highlights that urgent action is both possible and necessary," said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes.
Compared to other causes of premature death, air pollution worldwide kills 19 times more people each year than malaria, nine times more than HIV/AIDS, and three times more than alcohol.