Stronger policies needed to fight air pollution
While global leaders incessantly pontificate about emission-reduction targets, pollution-related respiratory complications continue to kill millions of people, many economically vulnerable and politically underrepresented. The data are clear about the urgency for intervention, and the content of good policy is no mystery. The greatest hurdle is the political indifference implicated in repeated policy failures.
While terrorism, political violence and pandemics are formidable threats to people’s livelihoods, air pollution continues to have an unparalleled impact on human survival. An estimated 6.5 million deaths worldwide are attributable to air pollution each year, according to the International Energy Agency.
TheWorldHealth Organization has issued guidelines for air quality based on the concentration and size of particulate matter; the smaller the particulates, the deeper and more harmful their penetration into human lungs can be. For particulates with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM10), the critical threshold is 20 micrograms per cubic meter as an annual mean, and 50 micrograms as a daily mean. WHOsays a reduction in PM10 from 70 micrograms per cubic meter (a common level in developing cities) to 20 micrograms could reduce pollution-related deaths by 15 percent.
The sources of household air pollution, which accounts for a majority of pollution-related deaths in India, are burning of coal, wood, dung and crop residue; these are vital sources of power and heating in poor and developing regions. Sources of ambient air pollution, which accounts for a small majority of air pollution-related deaths in China, are, among others, power plants and automobiles.
In findings presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 55 percent of the 5.5 million air pollution-related deaths in 2013 occurred in China (1.6 million) and India (1.4 million).
Recent WHO statistics show the pollution-level gap between developed and developing countries is growing. In the 22 largest cities of developed East Asia (including Japan and the Republic of Korea), the annual mean for PM10, an average of 37 micrograms, exceeds WHO standards by only a modest margin. In contrast, the average for China’s 23 largest cities (113) and 122 Indian cities (107) far exceeds WHO standards.
Globally, more than 80 percent of the cities where air pollution is monitored fail to meet WHO standards. On a per-capita basis, countries with the deadliest air pollution (yearly deaths per 100,000 people) include Ukraine (first of 184 countries), Russia (fourth) and China (10th ) — India is the 27th deadliest.
According to a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study, more than 700,000 people in Africa die from air pollution each year. Even paragons of environmental policy often fail to achieve performance targets; for example, measurements taken during summer 2016 found that PM2.5 in San Jose, California, exceeded that in Shanghai on 32 out of 61 days.
There are a variety of policyinduced practices to address air pollution: clean technologies and industrial processes, cleaner power generation, “smart” urbanization with emphasis on public transport, energy-efficient buildings and optimized waste management.
Still, current policy targets may be inadequate. One study estimates China’s faithful adherence to its own current air quality policies and commitments may not reduce air pollution-related deaths by 2040, because regulatory enforcement at the local level continues to be lax.
Given that China and India still have to pursue economic growth, and given the weak enforcement mechanisms in global climate accords, air pollution will be a lingering and menacing threat without targeted action. Now it is the time for domestic constituents, environmental watchdogs, and policy experts to advocate more aggressively for good-faith policy intervention. There can be neither economic growth nor political stability without public health. Leaders in the world’s rapidly developing countries may learn this in a hard way. Asit K. Biswas is a distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and Kris Hartley is a lecturer at the Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University.