Crystal Clear: Asia’s Cities are Finding Innovative Ways to Clean Their Skies

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is dealing with air pollution by addressing the root causes of the problem. Photo: ADB
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is dealing with air pollution by addressing the root causes of the problem. Photo: ADB

By Emma Marsden

In cities across Asia, air pollution levels are reaching alarming levels. There are workable solutions to cleaning up the air of the region’s urban areas but it will require resolve and innovation. 

Монгол хэл дээр унших бол энд дарна уу.

In November 2017 when Delhi declared an air pollution emergency with levels akin to smoking over 50 cigarettes a day I was peering through the smog that had penetrated the Indian capital city’s airport. In this city of over 18 million, many people are exposed to excessive levels of air pollution day in, day out. 

This year, on a visit to Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia, at the end of winter, I saw a city set against a beautiful backdrop of blue skies and mountains. But after a few days, the polluted air got to my throat. I spoke to parents who had taken the heart wrenching decision of sending their children to live with grandparents in the country to protect their health. Similarly during a visit to Kathmandu, Nepal, the level of ongoing construction created unbearable amounts of dust. 

Back where I live in Metro Manila, in the Philippines, I see hundreds of people breathing in the exhaust of traffic congestion on the eight-lane highway that is the city’s main artery as they wait for buses that often belch black smoke.  My own experiences are just a small insight into the extent of the problem, 92% of Asia and the Pacific’s population are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to health.

  Air pollution is making Asia’s cities unlivable and the region must take urgent action

Coupled with the fact that Asia’s cities are densely populated, and growing at a rapid rate, levels of indoor and outdoor air pollution already result in over 4 million people from the region dying prematurely each year, making its cities unlivable.  If we continue a “business as usual scenario” the numbers of deaths due to fine particulate matter will rise by over 50% in the next three decades, with the sharpest increases in Asia. 

Research has shown that it is not just respiratory and cardiovascular health we need to be concerned about. Miscarriage, premature birth, neurological development in children, and dementia in the elderly have all been linked to air pollution.  Nonetheless, outdoor and indoor air pollution is a leading preventable cause of premature death in Asia; and the region must take urgent action. 

First and foremost, air pollution is an environmental health and social development issue; the health sector being unduly burdened by the environmental externalities of air pollution.  The poor, children, infirm, and elderly are particularly vulnerable to its effects whilst, by the nature of their traditional roles, women are more exposed to indoor, and men to outdoor air pollution.  Thus, poverty and inequalities cannot be addressed without tackling it. 

It also creates a massive economic burden, due to a loss of productive labor, and increased health care and welfare costs.  By 2060, air pollution could be responsible for a reduction in global economic output of $330 per person, whilst annual healthcare costs due to air pollution could increase to $­176 billion.  To help beat it, as well as providing clinical care to those affected, the health sector must become proactively involved in addressing it at national and city level, through engaging in the development of clean air action plans or requesting health impact assessments for new developments.

  Rapid update of new technologies is crucial to addressing air pollution in Asia

The energy sector and industry are key to addressing this problem, whilst at the same time, helping to tackle climate change.  Many households in Asia use biomass, wood, coal or kerosene to cook, heat and light their houses exposing their occupants, especially women and children, to indoor air pollution.  Cities in the higher latitudes of Asia experience their worst outdoor air pollution during the winter months, due to cold temperatures and a need for such households to keep warm.  But even in areas where energy generation has been centralized, a continued reliance on fossil fuels, the use of old, inefficient technologies, lenient emission standards, and, an absence of pollution control equipment results in air pollution. 

For example, many megawatts of power are generated in coal-fired power plants without flue gas desulfurization, and billions of bricks are still produced using old, polluting kilns that release large amounts of black carbon into the atmosphere. The energy industry must support the introduction of strict emission standards, coupled with rapid uptake of cleaner fuel, renewable, energy efficient, and pollution control technologies.

Given the astounding surge in private vehicle ownership that has occurred in Asia in the last decade, priorities in the transport sector also need to rapidly shift.  Many countries in Asia are importing second-hand motor vehicles that no longer meet emission standards in other countries, and have yet to adopt  Euro 4, 5 or 6 fuel standards, let alone think about shifting to electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.  Introducing and implementing strict vehicle emission standards is of utmost priority since it takes around 15 years to completely replace in-use vehicles with cleaner ones.   There also needs to be a move away from building car-centric road networks, instead providing reliable, integrated mass transit systems, including trains, buses, cycle and footpaths, thereby at the same time benefiting public health and wellbeing. 

  Clean air action plans, coupled with strong environmental governance, and economic incentives, are essential to making cities livable.

Given the range of other sources that can contribute to a city’s air pollution, including construction sites, open burning of solid waste or crop residues, beating air pollution is always going to be highly complex.  Once the extent and causes of the air pollution problem faced by a country or city are understood, a range of sectors, including urban, energy and transport, must work together to develop and deliver on clean air action plans, as is being done by an ADB technical assistance project in Asia.  Strong environmental governance for the monitoring and enforcement of regulations to address the root causes of air pollution, and economic incentives and financing mechanisms to support the uptake of innovative approaches and technologies, are also critical.  Such an approach has been adopted by ADB projects in Ulaanbaatar and Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin, in the People’s Republic of China, and now needs to be transferred to other cities in Asia to ensure they become or remain livable.