Better governance, better air. It sounds simplistic, but it makes intuitive sense that politicians who are accountable to all of their citizens, journalists with enough independence to report critically on polluting industries, and regulatory and legal mechanisms that set norms for air quality would result in cleaner skies.
Typically (though by no means always) these are features of democratic governments.
Overall, there’s mixed evidence of the relationship between environmental protection and strength of democracy. But there are indications that lower air pollution, a key aspect of planetary health, is associated with stronger democratic institutes. One 2007 study, measuring air pollution by levels of sulfur dioxide, suspended particulate matter, and smoke, finds that “the higher the level of democracy, the lower the ambient pollution level.”
These findings are replicated, specifically for Eastern Europe and Eurasia, in a recent report from the NGO Freedom House. Nations in Transit 2020: Dropping the Democratic Facade describes a worrying uptick in authoritarianism across the region. Serbia, for instance, is no longer considered a democracy. The ruling party’s systematic weakening of opposition parties and frequent invocation of emergency procedures have led to parliamentary boycotts.
The Serbian opposition has protested not only parliamentary irregularities, but the smog in Belgrade – where the average car is 17 years old, and where wood and coal are used for heat. And this dissatisfaction with poor quality exists not only in Serbia, but across the Balkans.
Throughout the larger region, Freedom House’s analysis suggests that countries with more consolidated democracies also have lower mortality rates from air pollution.
Researcher Noah Buyon explains, “Statistically, this relationship is moderately correlated (but significant), which suggests that it’s indirect. In other words, a country’s air isn’t clean because it holds free and fair elections, but free and fair elections are probably more likely to engender responsive and effective environmental policymaking, which translates to cleaner, safer air. Similarly, an unfettered civil society sector and media sphere can apply more pressure on governments to address ecological issues. However, many other variables, like income, infrastructure, geography, are at work here.”
In any case there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy. In practice many nations classed as democracies have some institutions that are more open, and some institutions that are less representative. Likewise, a strong central government can push through environmental regulations if it’s headed by someone who values these. So it’s useful to think of democracy as existing along a continuum, as the Freedom House and Polity indices do for levels of democracy.
Buyon acknowledges, “you can’t draw a straight line from environmentalism to support for democracy, just as you can’t directly link toxic air to authoritarianism.” Yet the evidence does suggest that a country’s leaders are less likely to be able to sustainably improve air quality if they’re a narrow elite that suppresses protests, criticism, science, and the kinds of institutions needed to monitor and regulate pollution.
So as more countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, become more autocratic, one casualty may be the state of their citizens’ lungs.