We Need To Do Whatever it Takes to Improve Air Quality

Asia’s cities have experienced extraordinary air quality in recent months. Photo: ADB
Asia’s cities have experienced extraordinary air quality in recent months. Photo: ADB

By Emma Marsden, Susann Roth

Now is the time to take advantage of the clean air being experienced in many cities across Asia. We must not support a “quick and dirty” post-COVID-19 recovery plan that returns pollution to the region’s skies.  

We live in a rare moment in history. For the first time in decades, policy makers are considering “whatever it takes” policy decisions to save lives from COVID-19. Lockdowns across countries all over the world are becoming the largest social experiment we have ever seen. While lockdowns definitely lead to a lot of socioeconomic collateral damage, they have had a tremendous positive impact on air quality, with some urban residents experiencing clean air for the first time in their life.

For example, in Delhi one of the most dramatic improvements in the region was seen with the lockdown leading to a 50% improvement in air quality after just four days. Improved air quality in the People’s Republic of China in the last few months even suggests that the number of early deaths from poor air quality that have been avoided exceeds the number who have died from COVID-19 while another study estimates that there were 11,000 fewer deaths due to air pollution in Europe during lockdown.

In addition, studies have shown a significant relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 infection, which could partially explain the effect of lockdowns on decreasing the severity of infection. Airways pre-injured due to air pollution exposure, are less capable of fighting intruding coronavirus infections. This has implications for the control and prevention of this disease and hopefully highlights the urgent need for drastic policy actions to take air quality seriously.

COVID-19 shows us clearly that healthy air is not just nice to have, it is a “must have”, particularly for the more than 92% of the world’s population who live in areas with unhealthy air.

Now is our chance to change, taking advantage of the clean air being experienced in many cities across the region during lockdown.

The numbers are staggering. In 2017 long-term exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributed to almost 5 million premature deaths. That makes air pollution the fifth-highest cause of death among all health risks. No country has really taken a “whatever it takes” policy approach to addressing something so obvious: healthy air as a public good and as a right to protect. To achieve this, national and city governments need to consider the following key actions:

  • Build on recent clean air episodes to raise political will and public demand for the air quality experienced during COVID-19 to be the new normal. Lockdowns have shown it is possible to improve air quality in the region and that experience can be channeled by governments as a catalyst for positive change. A recent survey found that about 85% of people in India want stricter laws and/or enforcement of air quality regulations. Raising awareness of the health benefits and getting people to reflect on the positive effects recent clean air episodes have had on their health and wellbeing can help garner the necessary political and public support for addressing air pollution. 
  • Use information gained during lockdown to understand key sources of air pollution that need to be tackled. Interestingly, how lockdowns affected air pollution depends on the country and city context. In cities where improvements are seen, traffic is likely to be the main contributor, but this is not always the case and other key sources include industry and power generation. In the pre-COVID-19 context, it was hard to generate enough evidence for decision makers to understand where policy measures needed to be directed. For those that have monitoring data, emissions inventory and source apportionment studies can now be informed by any changes seen during lockdown. Even where no monitoring data exits the effects of shutdowns may have been visually evident and can be a starting point for governments trying to determine the most effective policy measures.
  • Develop clean air actions plans with multi-stakeholder involvement, including the health sector, whilst momentum exists. Getting effective cross-sectoral policy measures adopted is the first stage in tackling air pollution, if such policies do not exist funds cannot be allocated to them. As a priority, countries and cities who do not currently have clean air action plans in place should develop them to ensure that necessary actions, such as regulatory improvements, can be incorporated into economic stimulus packages.
  • Fast adoption of policies supporting clean modes of transport. There are challenges in terms of social distancing on public transport, but governments need to continue to ensure it is a safe option, so ridership does not fall. On the flip side, increasing private motor vehicle use should be tackled by incentives that discourage truck, car and motorbike ownership and use, such as congestion charges, at the same time accelerating clean vehicles and fuels replacement. Private business can also play a significant role by continuing to encourage work from home arrangements.  But as many households do not even have the option of private transport, in the COVID-19 context they have walked or cycled to their destination but these need to safe and accessible. Both are often not the case in developing countries. Whilst there is high demand and the benefits are evident, urban planners can create car free spaces  and green corridors with trees and plants with more and usable foot and cycle paths.
  • Incentivizing renewable energy generation and energy efficiency measures, making it an integral part of economic recovery. Economic stimulus packages must avoid incentivizing fossil fuels and energy-intensive industrial development and instead support policy measures for air quality for a green recovery. Unfortunately the global CO2 emissions reports in June are coming close to  pre-COVID-19 times. Removing fossil fuel subsides is a quick win, whilst green jobs can be created by strengthening emissions regulations and supporting private industry and households to install renewable energy generation sources and energy efficiency measures.

Now is our chance to change, taking advantage of the clean air being experienced in many cities across the region during lockdown.

But at the same time improvements are easily lost, and it must be ensured that economic stimulus packages do not support a “quick and dirty” post-COVID19 recovery, otherwise air pollution may get worse than usual and risk even more lives now and in the future.