Air pollution claims more lives annually than tobacco, with children and the elderly at severe risk.
Sadly, many people are exposed to substances so toxic that put together they shorten lives by 2.3 years and kill more people around the world than tobacco. An estimated 570,000 children under five die each year simply by going about the business of breathing.
Close to seven million people died from breathing polluted air in 2019. Many suffered heart attacks or strokes. Others developed cancer. Fossil-fueled engines are polluting the air with nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, and particulate matter that make us sick.
Those same engines emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that contribute to climate change. Particles fine enough to flit through blood vessels pierce many lungs and sometimes end up inside brains. No one is immune to this pollution, from babies to those living in remote areas.
There is no shortage of solutions to reduce air pollution. A wide range of measures, from stricter emission standards to innovative technologies, are well-known and easy to engage. Yet, air quality receives only 1% of international development funding and 2% of global public climate finance.
We can benefit from shared prosperity only when we accept that polluted air crosses borders and must be addressed regionally. Regional forums give us the opportunity to strengthen collaboration across multiple sectors and align national strategies to clean our shared skies.
Through such platforms we can make it clear that one country’s forests matter to all countries’ air quality because of the oxygen they produce, the carbon dioxide they absorb, and the particulate matter they would unleash should they ever go up in flames.
Facts inspire action. Yet, only one out of three Asian countries has set a national standard for particulate matter, the most harmful air pollutant. This standard is needed to monitor progress towards international health guidelines.
The more we measure and monitor the quality of our air, the more successfully we can enforce emission standards to complement policies that electrify the mass transit grid and reduce the climate impact of transportation.
By placing air quality at the heart of transport finance, we can empower the 75% of people living in Asian cities who use public transit with ways to fight climate change and control the quality of air they breathe every day.
We can coordinate national efforts to recover 2.3 years of life for each person, save close to seven million people every year and bring the planet’s fever down before it touches 1.5 degrees.
Rather than simply banning a farmer from burning his wheat straw, we can create supply chains that sequester his carbon waste. By helping him turn his wheat stubble into money rather than smoke, we can protect his health and cancel his contribution to creating the ozone that kills 9% of his crop every year. In the process, we could lower the carbon and energy bills we face in drier parts of our countries by switching to the superior insulation of straw-bale.
A woman blowing on the coals to cook rice for her baby is a vital ally in our collective fight to reclaim the air. By encouraging her to switch to a cleaner cooking fuel, we lower her chances of developing lung cancer and her infant’s chances of damaging their developing brain.
By empowering mothers to make a different choice, through targeted clean cooking and heating programs, we at once help her rein in indoor and outdoor air pollution, enlist her and her infant in the fight against climate change, and meet our development mandate to tangibly improve the quality of life for women and children.
From the tiny phytoplankton that collectively exhales half the oxygen we breathe to our own species, life on Earth shapes 99% of the atmosphere through its many interconnected activities. Of all the species alive on Earth today, none has greater power to restore and regenerate our world than humans.
On an individual level, we have the option to make lifestyle choices that minimize pollution. At a national level, governments can protect forests, enforce emission standards, and unlock the renewable benefits of municipal and agricultural waste by making public health the foundation on which to base clean air standards and policies.
By giving air quality a prominent place in our national development plans and climate change commitments, we can expand the availability of funding for air quality beyond the miniscule amounts being committed today.
We can coordinate national efforts to recover 2.3 years of life for each person, save close to seven million people every year, and bring the planet’s fever down before it touches 1.5 degrees. If each of us does our part in this endeavor, together we will turn the grey skies over Asia and the Pacific blue again.