Youth Involvement Key to Keeping Asia’s Skies Clear

Young people are an important element of the effort to keep Asia’s skies clear. Photo: James Wheeler
Young people are an important element of the effort to keep Asia’s skies clear. Photo: James Wheeler

By Emma Marsden, Bulganmurun Tsevegjav , William Lucht, Muskaan Chopra

To reduce air pollution, national and city government policy makers, their development partners, academe, and the private sector need to work with young people. 

Air pollution is a silent killer that is resulting in 1 in 8 deaths globally and has become a major public health issue for most of urban Asia. Accounting for 16% of the global population, young people are among the most affected. The mobilization of youth in addressing air quality presents an opportunity to improve the situation.

Lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic might have cleansed the skies over many cities in Asia and the Pacific. But eventually economic activity will resume, bringing increased air pollution that will threaten the health of millions across the region. As well as causing chronic illnesses, such as lung and heart disease, air pollution affects maternal and child health, resulting in miscarriage, deformities in newborn babies, and restricted physical and cognitive development of children, which can then have a prolonged impact on not only individuals but on the public healthcare system. Globally around 93% of children under the age of 15 are breathing polluted air, at levels many times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) advised air quality guidelines.

In 2016, the WHO estimated that 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution. Of concern to older youth, air pollution also significantly impacts on the global economy, and thus their prospects. According to a report by the World Bank, air pollution costs the global economy upwards of $5 trillion every year in welfare costs, which includes $225 billion in lost income. Furthermore, the health impacts of air pollution result in increased medical costs incurred by families.

Only seven out of 419 Asian cities have fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations within the WHO air quality guidelines. About 4 billion people in the region are exposed to levels of air pollution that present a significant risk to their health, of which youth make up 19%. For example, in Indonesia, air pollution was the third leading risk factor for child mortality in 2017 and linked to 14,000 children being born smaller for their age.

Incidences of respiratory diseases in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar have increased 2.7-fold in the last 10 years with children living in a highly polluted district of central Ulaanbaatar found to have 40% lower lung function than children living in rural areas. Peking University identified that not only does air pollution pose health risks to its students, it has  psychological and behavioural consequences. However, while youth remain one of the most adversely impacted groups from air pollution, they are also the one group predominantly uninvolved in finding the solution.

  What can young people do to clear up Asia’s skies?

Given the stakes for youth growing up in polluted cities, what can they do to help governments combat air pollution? They can embrace both conventional and unconventional methods. Through social media and other online interactions, they are already sharing knowledge and starting discussions and debates to ultimately mobilize their peers towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. One example is the youth-led NGO “Bye-Bye Plastic Bags”, which aims to make the island of Bali plastic bag free. With the help of young people, who participated in awareness campaigns and beach clean-ups, Bali became the first Indonesian province to implement a province wide ban on single use plastic bags, straws and polystyrene in June 2019. 

Young people can also engage students through school extra-curricular activities and educational assistance to help them understand the meaning of air quality indicators and the early recognition of respiratory diseases among children.

This can also be done in support of energy efficiency and cleaner technology and fuels for heating and cooking at home, and to motivate behavioural changes, including switching to public transport. Youth involvement in the advancement of technology and smartphone app development is also beneficial for air quality management, such as supporting low cost air quality monitoring and smartphone apps which report on air quality levels in cities  and send  recommendations to users, for example, on the wearing of N95 masks.

To clear the haze, national and city government policy makers, their development partners, academe, and the private sector need to engage with the youth in addressing air pollution.  Ultimately, the problem of air pollution is one that resonates with us all and must be solved through joint efforts, not least by involving and mobilizing the actions, insights and voices of youth.