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13 November 2019 A new wave of air pollution crises: what can be done?

Over the past few months, a series of air pollution episodes have set new records across Asia. Earlier this summer, hundreds of people were evacuated, and schools had to be closed due to poor air quality in many parts of Indonesia, during a crisis that made the skies over the region turn red. More recently, air quality levels have worsened in India creating public outcry with dire consequences for large swaths of society. The spikes, especially in fine particulate matter (PM2.5), have caused closure of schools, declaration of health emergency by the state government, demonstrations by civil society and alarming media coverage.

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Over the past few months, a series of air pollution episodes have set new records across Asia. Earlier this summer, hundreds of people were evacuated, and schools had to be closed due to poor air quality in many parts of Indonesia, during a crisis that made the skies over the region turn red. More recently, air quality levels have worsened in India creating public outcry with dire consequences for large swaths of society. The spikes, especially in fine particulate matter (PM2.5), have caused closure of schools, declaration of health emergency by the state government, demonstrations by civil society and alarming media coverage.

These recurrent episodes now happen every year like clockwork during the beginning of winter, aggravated by the festive season. In India, extreme air pollution has become its own season, from October to February. A major cause is intentional burning to clear agricultural residue and forests in the neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab, UP and Rajasthan, as well as household fires for cooking and heating. These practices worsen the already bad air quality levels caused by pollution from transport, energy and industrial sources.

Extreme air pollution episodes affect millions of people in densely populated regions who are exposed to thick, toxic smog for weeks. Local public health experts estimate that by the time kids come back from school they have been exposed to air pollution level equivalent to smoking 50 to 60 cigarettes in the national capital region. Similarly, vulnerable sectors of society are disproportionally exposed to this environmental threat.

Particulate matter found in the smog and air pollution has negative effects on human health and, according to the World Health Organization, is responsible for 7 million premature deaths worldwide each year. In the countries affected by such dramatic episodes, as well as by overall high levels of air pollution, this environmental threat represents the second or third most serious risk factor for public health.

A recent report by the Health Effects Institute highlighted that, if no additional measures are taken to change the ongoing regular air pollution crises, deaths from air pollution in India will rise from 1.1 million in 2015 to 1.7 million deaths annually in 2030 and 3.6 million deaths annually by 2050.

Such mortality and morbidity impacts translate into significant economic losses (approximately up to 1 per cent of India’s gross domestic product) as has been estimated thanks to the ongoing work on the impact of air pollution on India’s human capital and economy, by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and University of Delhi.

“Besides air pollution’s detrimental impact on our health, this out of proportion environmental threat also impacts our economies, our food security, our climate, and it exacerbates inequalities,” said Soraya Smaoun, UNEP’s Air Quality Coordinator. Air pollution and climate change are intrinsically linked, since air pollutants impact the climate and are often co-emitted with greenhouse gases.

With Asia having experienced the most dramatic episodes of air pollution in recent years, many studies have focused on regional solutions. In 2016, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition commissioned a report to find solutions to air pollution in Indian cities. The report Breathing Cleaner Air: Ten Scalable Solutions for Indian Cities was led by a task force of Indian and international experts. It outlined solutions that can significantly reduce air pollution in the country, including preventing agricultural open burning by turning crop residue into a resource to produce fuel for electricity generation.

A similar report focusing on regional solutions was published by UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition last year called Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions, detailing 25 policy and technological measures that will deliver benefits across sectors. It represented the first comprehensive scientific assessment of the air pollution outlook in Asia and the Pacific and highlighted that adopting the 25 recommended measures could lead to a reduction in premature mortality in the region by one third, helping to avoid 2 million premature deaths from indoor air pollution per year.

Reports converge on the finding that local governments must play a central role in the fight to #BeatAirPollution in the region. Jambi City, which received international media attention due to its sky turning red during the latest crisis in Indonesia, has approved an emissions mitigation plan that includes reducing and capturing methane from waste, local regulations that ban waste burning and planting trees to make its neighbourhoods greener. Having recently joined the BreatheLife network, it is but one example of how cities are taking the lead in Asia to improve air quality and protect their citizens and our planet.

Furthermore, this year the Indian government joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition on the occasion of World Environment Day. India’s Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, stated then that India will work to “adopt cleaner energy, sustainable production and consumption patterns” as well as “environment-friendly transport, agriculture, industry and waste management to promote clean air”.

The UN Environment Assembly, together with other global entities, has called for heightened action to improve air quality and to address pollution in general. Global political momentum is supported by regional political processes that recognize health and the environment as a priority in Asia and the Pacific. These are a good foundation for taking more decisive action.

The current extreme air pollution episodes in Asia are part of a serious, persistent, global air pollution problem, which involves the transport and agricultural sectors, household energy, industry as well as waste management practices. It is therefore imperative that coordinated efforts led by local and national governments and supported by existing tools and international experience take place in order to protect ourselves, our economies and our planet from the detrimental effects of this growing environmental threat.

 

The BreatheLife network, a joint effort by the World Health Organization, the UN Environment Programme and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, is working with local and national governments to design and implement policies that improve air quality levels in urban areas. It also mobilizes and empowers citizens to take personal responsibility to prevent air pollution and protect our health and planet from its effects. Cities use BreatheLife as a platform to share best practices and demonstrate progress in their journey to meeting World Health Organization air quality targets by 2030, and to build demand for new solutions and ways to take action both locally and globally.

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