In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its air quality database and the figures remain grim as ever. Almost 99 percent of the world breathes foul air that exceeds WHO’s air quality limits and people in low and middle-income countries suffer from the highest exposure.
While the database shows the region-wise air degradation, what remains undisputable is how air knows no boundaries, making air pollution trans-boundary. “The boundaries that captivate our attention in our day-to-day lives are often political and administrative. But the flows of our winds don’t respect human-made boundaries,” points out Siddharth Singh, expert on energy, climate and the author of The Great Smog of India. In his book, published in 2018, Singh sheds light on some scientific, historic and economic reasons that lead to air pollution.
In the last seven years, since its publication, the reasons have only multiplied. This year, the United Nations Environment Programme has called for ‘The Air We Share’ as the theme for the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies on September 7. Not without reason, as the UN body urges countries and corporations, communities and individuals to come together in the fight against air pollution.
Air pollution is local, regional, national and global. In Northern India, especially during winter months, air pollution takes a monstrous proportion, originating from the burning of industrial waste besides heating and cooking, along with transport and dust. In America, besides industrialisation, natural disasters such as increasing incidence of wildfires due to climate change further aids air pollution. Indoor air pollution, due to poor cooking practices using wood and coal, are other leading causes of air pollution in middle- and low-income countries.
As is evident the adoption of Clean Air for blue skies day has become crucial to put the urgency related to air pollution under spotlight. Children are disproportionately exposed to the risks associated with air pollution, as are pregnant women and they pay for this exposure throughout their lives.
In 2021, The Ardee School in Gurgaon, in northern India, built up an oxygen rich environment for its students as a solution to handle air pollution. As per the school, a micro-environment has been created where mechanical engineering is used to pump filtered ambient air into the central atrium, thus creating a positive pressure on the entire school, designed for two to three air changes every hour. According to the school’s chairperson Shefali Verma, the way school buildings are designed, will have to be reimagined “if we want to mitigate infections, pollution and CO2 levels.”
Clean air is now a human right. In July, the United Nations declared that everyone on the planet has a right to a healthy environment. In the run-up to the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies climate, the United Nations Secretary General has called for countries to work together as nations know no boundaries.
Transboundary nature of air pollution
“Everyone can be harmed by air pollution, especially if exposed for extended periods of time. Some groups may be more vulnerable than others. But no matter how affluent a location you reside in, air pollution is difficult to avoid. We are surrounded by it,” stresses Olumide Idowu, co-founder, International Climate Change Development Initiative, Africa.
Not without reason why this year the focus is on the transboundary and regional nature of air pollution, reinforcing the importance of global collaboration.
Singh explains how winds are often known to carry air pollutants thousands of kilometres away, often traversing seas and going to other continents. “India’s winter smog episodes aren’t localised to India. They span from Pakistan to Bangladesh, including all Indian states in between. To address this problem, the solution too will have to be implemented across these territories,” he adds.
It’s a point reiterated by Padu Padmanabhan, former Program Director of the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy and Senior Energy Advisor for USAID’s bilateral program. “Vehicular emissions, air pollution from coal-fired power plants and from factories circle the earth together with vaporized mercury, methane and sulphate aerosols and other airborne toxic chemicals and pesticides. From a health perspective, deaths from toxins in the air, water and soil outstrips malaria, HIV, TB and Covid19,” he explains.
According to a report “Different Air Under One Sky: The Inequity Air Research”, published by Greenpeace India for UN International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, reveals that even though air pollution is a universal health problem, the risks are not evenly distributed amongst the population with some groups of people at greater risk of harm.
“Indeed it can be said that in many developing countries, particularly those in Southeast Asia, which is known to be the most polluted region in the world with an estimated 3.7 million deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution, few risks have a greater impact on global health than the air we all breathe,” says Padmanabhan, who recently wrote ‘First Fuel: India’s energy Efficiency Journey’, a book highlighting how energy efficiency needs to be given its due from boiler rooms to board rooms.
The vicious spiral
The vicious spiral of air pollution is glaringly evident and it affects different people differently. From short-term immediate impacts to long-lasting results, it’s an invisible threat that affects one and all.
According to a 2020 study conducted by Alberto Salvo, Associate Professor from the Department of Economics at the National University of Singapore, households respond to ambient air pollution by increasing electricity consumption, which in turn increases the carbon emissions that are co-produced in supplying the electricity. The results of the study published in the ‘Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists’ show that overall electricity demand grew by 1.1 percent when PM 2.5 rose by 10 micrograms per cubic metre.
“Our study shows how poor air quality (including upwind land fires in the case of Singapore) induces households in a rich tropical urban area (Singapore) to close their windows and turn on their air conditioners. This boosts the demand for electricity and the supply of fossil fuel fired electricity needed to meet that demand,” Prof Salvo says.
As the planet warms, the world’s demand for air-conditioning will surge, producing yet more carbon emissions in a vicious spiral. “To break the ‘pollution begets pollution’ spiral, we need to transition away from fossil fuels. By doing so, we enjoy co-benefits from reduced greenhouse gas concentrations and improved air quality,” Prof Salvo adds.
According to the Greenpeace report, in India, more pregnant people lived in the most polluted category when compared with the whole population. In Thailand, infants and older adults are more likely to live in places where annual mean PM 2.5 concentrations are more than five times the WHO guideline.
“Our policy interventions are unfortunately disjointed. We treat air pollution as a problem that’s different from the climate problem and from the energy problem,” rues Singh. “Air pollution should be at the heart of our decisions on transport, industry and urbanisation, much like climate change and energy are. Specifically, every policy that impacts core sectors of the economy should also include some information on the impacts of that policy on air quality, climate and energy demand. That will lead to more informed decision making in these spheres,” he further adds.
According to Padmanabhan, the need of the hour is to bring an improvement in air quality through a variety of measures. “It can range from improved combustion efficiency to use of less polluting fuels. Air pollution regulatory compliance can result in sharp reductions in emissions and concentrations of short lived climate forcers (SLCFs) and result in helping to severe the link between climate impact and SCLFs,” he says.
Solutions at hand
The transboundary nature of air pollution is well documented. “Researchers believe that strategies that address both local air pollution and global climate change should be combined to achieve greater benefits for climate change mitigation. Long-term plans to slow climate change will be more advantageous than medium-term initiatives to reduce air pollution,” Idowu says.
While moving away from fossil fuels and substituting them with alternative energies like solar, wind, and geothermal is the most straightforward strategy to reduce air pollution, it’s time countries started working with each other.
“Some countries, particularly the developed countries like US, Canada and Western Europe have done reasonably well in tackling air pollution through mutual agreements between themselves to address transboundary air pollution. “For instance the reduction of PM2.5 air pollution from 1999 to 2016 in the US and Canada has been dramatic. In 1991, the US and Canada entered into an agreement to address transboundary air pollution,” says Padmanabhan.
Experts believe time has come to address it as a global challenge and learn from past examples. “For example, the Montreal Protocol has been immensely successful. To get countries internationally to work together on air pollution now, we will need mobilisation at the highest political levels to work towards a global ambition on clean air, and perhaps even an international agreement or treaty towards achieving those objectives,” points out Singh.
Last year at the 26th session of UN’s Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow, 500 parent groups from 44 countries shared a petition demanding an end to fossil fuels. The delegation was led by Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lost her nine-year-old daughter to severe asthma in London, which was officially linked to air pollution. It was a reminder to everyone about the crisis and need to fight together. This year’s COP27 and the next COP28 have a larger role to play in highlighting these issues and community voices. There’s an urgent need to bring all stakeholders on a common platform so as to give thrust to mitigative and preventive actions at all levels—from local to global and from individual to countries.
Let’s not forget dust storms in one part of the world become haze in another. A reminder that the ‘The Air We Share’ is everybody’s to care for and it’s the only way forward to reclaim blue skies.