Your city could be exporting deadly air pollution – here’s why

industry-1752876_1920

Air pollution is often seen as a local problem requiring local and regional solutions. Karachi, London, Lagos, Mexico City and Paris are just a few of the world’s cities grappling with poor air quality. With city-dwellers increasingly being asked to ditch the car – especially if it’s diesel – and use greener modes of transport, it’s easy to forget that air is also mobile. As a result, there’s very little attention being paid to the impact of cross-border air pollution on human health and well-being.

300 million children are currently breathing in toxic air

Globally, air pollution caused by microscopic fine particles (PM₂.₅) kills 3.5m people each year. These particles can easily enter the respiratory tract. They rank fifth worldwide among all risks to health after high blood pressure, smoking and diet. Breathing filthy air can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and affect mental health. And it is the vulnerable in society who suffer the most, with 300m children currently breathing in toxic air. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, together with second-hand smoke, causes 570,000 deaths in children under five years of age each year, due to respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

The movement of air pollutants from transport and agricultural activities in one country can affect the air quality in another. Such as the smoke from Indonesian forest fires which has caused a toxic haze to descend over parts of Malaysia and Singapore. Another example is the atmospheric brown cloud – a transnational air pollution phenomenon which contains aerosols such as soot and dust that poses risks to human health and food security, especially in Asia.

Exporting emissions

Cross-border air pollution has been an issue for some time: in the 1970-80s, the UK was nicknamed the “dirty man of Europe” for belching out industrial sulphur emissions, which contributed to acid rain in Europe – a reputation that the Greens fear will be regained after Brexit.

But it’s only recently that the scale of the air pollution effects of international trade has been assessed, with one study suggesting that around 400,000 premature deaths occurred in 2007 in a different region of the world than the one in which the air pollutants were emitted.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 22% (762,400) of air pollution-related deaths worldwide. In particular, Chinese particle emissions were responsible for 64,800 premature deaths in other regions, including over 3,000 deaths in Western Europe and the US. By contrast, Chinese products bought in Western Europe and the US are linked to over 100,000 deaths in China in one year.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 762,400 of air pollution-related deaths worldwide.

International trade has seen many developed countries transferring their manufacturing abroad, in order to take advantage of cheap labour and lax environmental standards in often less wealthy nations. As a result, air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, has effectively been exported to developing countries.

Making the switch

So, while murky grey images of smog smothered Beijing or New Delhi may prompt others to ask why they don’t clean up their act, it’s important to remember that these cities are shouldering an enormous manufacturing burden, as much of the world’s goods and services are outsourced to China and India.

There is now a need for governments to switch from calculating greenhouse gas emissions based on production to one based on consumption of goods and services. This has important implications for global climate and air mitigation policies because as much as 20% to 25% of overall carbon dioxide emissions come from the production of goods and services which are traded internationally.

Although there has been success in achieving better air quality over the past the six decades, this doesn’t erase the need to face up to big global environment challenges. Cities are responsible for around 70% of global greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long term, short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon (a primary part of particulate matter), methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near-term. Local action, such as banning diesel cars, addresses both air and climate pollutants. This can achieve immediate effects by reducing near-term warming and improving air quality levels.

There’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere.

There are several international conventions to regulate air pollution and related issues. But for now, there’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere. This has led to calls for a new Law of the Atmosphere to provide effective cooperation on air pollution and climate change at regional and global scales. As it stands, the likelihood of such a law gaining support is low, given the climate change scepticism exhibited by powerful world leaders such as presidents Trump and Putin.

Everyone has the right to clean air. But air pollution requires no visas, and its devastating impact can be felt far from the source. No longer can the leaders of developed nations shy away from the fact that their citizens’ consumption and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on people in others part of the world. As consumers, we have the power and the responsibility to demand better environmental and social standards – so we can all breathe life, wherever we live.

This article was first published at The Conversation

Advertisements

How Can Asian Cities Better Manage Air Quality?

 

City authorities in Asia are on the front-line in the fight against air pollution and climate change. But what additional action can Asian city authorities take to better manage air quality?

Many Asian cities are grappling with the challenge of poor air quality with their efforts being hampered by limited financial, human resources and technical capacity. As a consequence, city authorities are not always able to determine the extent of their air pollution problems or take the most appropriate measures.

This is a significant issue for outdoor air pollution is one of the top five risks to human health in developing countries in Asia. In 2012 air pollution was responsible for more than 2.6 million premature deaths in the Western Pacific and South East Asian regions. The issue of urban air quality will become an increasing problem as the urban population expands. Currently, 16 of the world’s 29 megacities (urban agglomerations of more than 10 million people) are located in Asia. By 2030 it is estimated 23 out of 41 megacities globally will be in Asia.

A Systematic Approach

china

A systematic and integrated air quality management (AQM) approach is necessary to protect human health and wellbeing as well as flora and fauna, ecosystems and material assets. A number of cities in Asia have adopted pollution control measures that have resulted in a continuous improvement in air quality. For example, seventy-four major Chinese cities have seen the annual average concentrations of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide decrease since 2014. However, studies have shown that some Asian cities are failing to respond quickly enough to the changing urban landscape and evolving air pollution problem. This is partly due to the scope and effectiveness of the measures taken and the absence of a comprehensive AQM system.

Taking Stock

The Clean Air Scored Card is one tool that is currently being piloted by Clean Air Asia to assist city authorities to take stock of their AQM approach and identify priority areas for action. The Score Card assesses four components: air quality measurement capacity; data assessment and availability; emissions inventory; and AQM management enabling capacity. It provides a quick snapshot on the overall status of AQM in a city ranging from underdeveloped, developing, emerging, maturing and fully developed.

On the Road to Cleaner Air

Once a city authority has identified a particular area for improvement it can then take appropriate action. The Guidance Framework for Better Air Quality in Asian Cities outlines a voluntary road map to improve urban air quality. Organized around six key areas of concern (Ambient air quality standards and monitoring, Emissions inventories and modelling, Health and other impacts, Air quality communication, Clean air action plans and Governance), the Guidance Framework aims to equip cities with the knowledge and direction needed to effectively reduce air pollution by mapping out the steps to be taken by national and local-level policy-makers.

A number of AQM training programmes such as the Clean Air for Smaller Cities programme are available in Asia. Together with on-line educational resources, such initiatives enable Asian local and government officials to further develop their capacity to address priority areas identified in the Scorecard Assessment and implement the steps outlined in the Guidance Framework road map.

Partnerships for Clean Air

As well as training programmes, much can be gained and learned through collaboration and sharing between cities and countries. Twinning promotes inter-city and region-wide sharing of information and experiences towards generating insights that will hopefully encourage implementation of the good practices of cities and countries. The Asian Development Bank’s Technical Assistance on “Mainstreaming Air Quality in Urban Development through South-South Twinning” aims to address challenges of AQM in Asian cities by promoting long term-planning and identifying strategies for South-South twinning to facilitate sharing and learning of good urban AQM practices in Asia.

While the best practice approaches to managing air quality may not always achieve the similar level of success when applied in a different context, they do give an insight into tackling a particular issue. This is especially the case when core elements are adapted for local circumstances.

Motivating Change

In order to motivate and reward cities to take action, a City Certification Programme is being developed to support progressive and sustainable advances in air quality. The Cities Clean Air Partnership’s city certification programme will enable cities to communicate the achievements that they have made towards better air quality management goals through a “seal of approval” (or eco-label). The programme offers international recognition for cities taking significant steps to improve the air quality. It is anticipated that there will be three levels of certification (Bronze, Silver and Gold).

The bronze level, targeted at the capacity building, will in 2016 be piloted in five cities before being opened to wider participation: Baguio, Iloilo and Santa Rosa in the Philippines, Malang in Indonesia, and Kathmandu in Nepal. Following this level, cities will be assessed based on the level of effort they make relative to their resources.

Maximising Air and Climate Co-Benefits

Cities are responsible for around 70 per cent of global GHGs: While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long-term; short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon, a primary component of particulate matter, methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near-term.

slcps

 

Taking a co-benefits approach addresses air and climate pollutants and helps identify and implement win-win strategies that help meet the economic and social development needs of developing countries. Technologies and strategies targeting short-lived climate pollutants are able to reduce both near-term warming as well as air pollution levels. In Asia, the reduction of black emissions from diesel vehicles and biomass cook stoves, and reducing methane emissions from coal mining, oil and gas production and municipal waste are estimated to bring about significant air and climate benefits.

Measures to reduce emissions from transportation such as avoiding traffic congestion or public campaigns encouraging non-motorized transport (e.g. cycling and walking) can also provide additional wellbeing benefits such as increased physical activity.

No Excuses

Achieving better air quality in Asian cities requires local solutions that exploit the multiple benefits associated with quick actions to improve air quality while mitigating both short-lived climate pollutants and long-lived greenhouse gases. There are a number of initiatives, guidance and tools available to assist Asian cities authorities in this task. All that is required is the political will and organizational interest to adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach to managing air quality and achieving air and climate benefits.

Car Free Cities

IMAGINE for a moment a city free from the noise, air pollution, congestion and danger associated with cars and lorries.

Imagine a safer and cleaner urban environment where more people walk, cycle, and use public transport and interact on the streets. Imagine a city where children can enjoy the independence and freedom of travelling to school and visiting friends. Imagine every major city in the country being car free..

For many the idea of a car free city may seem like an impossible dream. Yet this week academics, city planners and campaigners from all over the world will descend on the city of York (UK) to participate in the ninth World Car Free City Conference. This global gathering aims to develop practical alternatives to car-dependent lifestyles and car-dominated cities. In York participants will discuss cutting-edge and radical thinking in transport policy that show that the development of car free cities is a possible reality which offers numerous social and health benefits.

There is no doubt we are a car dependent nation. We have developed and adapted our cities to cater for increased car use rather than for the freedom and safety of pedestrians and children. Today about 70 per cent of households in Britain own a car compared to just 50 per cent in 1970. The car has become an essential feature of our modern urban way of life. We use it to get to work, to go shopping, to transport our kids to school, to visit friends and have day trips out. It offers freedom, mobility, independence, status, and for some, sexual expression. It is often cheaper and more convenient than public transport.

It has even been suggested that the type and colour of the car says more about someone’s personality than the clothes they wear or the house they live in. A RAC survey found that owners of pastel-colour cars are eight times more likely to suffer from depression than people with bright coloured cars, while drivers of white cars are distant and aloof. Owners of silver or metallic blue cars are the happiest drivers on the road, while owners of cars in the pastel colours of lilac and lime are twice as likely to be the victims of road rage.

A recent government survey of public attitudes to the car and the environment found that three-quarters of adults said that they were likely to undertake some form of activity to reduce car trips due to concerns about climate change. These activities included walking short journeys or reducing the number of non-essential trips. Yet while we may be open to the idea of curbing our car use we do not always put this into action.

Back in 2004 the City of York participated in a Government pilot project which aimed to change travel behaviour, increase regular exercise and cut congestion by designing individual travel plans for participants and offering them a range of incentives. The York Intelligent Travel project contacted nearly 6,000 households of which over 240 took part in the project from different areas of the city. Results of the twelve month trial were successful in reducing the distance travelled by car and increasing the distance and number of trips by bicycle and public transport. Although the project was initially successful in reducing car use, a follow-up study a year later discovered that this behaviour was not sustained. Participants had reverted back to their old travel behaviour demonstrating the challenge in persuading people to make long-term lifestyles changes.

Despite this challenge, Venice (Italy), Fes (Morocco) and Slateford Green in Edinburgh have managed to gain car free status. The largest car free development in Europe is in Freiburg (Germany). Residents in the suburb of Vauban have to sign an annual declaration stating whether they own a car or not. Car owners must purchase a place in one of the multi-storey car parks on the periphery, run by a council-owned company and pay a monthly fee to cover ongoing costs. Vauban has become a traffic-free residential area where the streets are often full of unsupervised young children, playing and cycling.

In the UK many cities continue to struggle to cope with the social and environmental burden of increasing traffic. If we want to enjoy the better quality of life that car free cities offer, we need to reclaim the public pedestrian space that has been slowly given up to the car. Equally, if we need make public transport cheaper, efficient and reliable and walking and cycling safer and pleasurable.

A car free city is not an impossible dream; the challenge is not technical but political. We need our civic leaders to have the vision and passion to create cities for people, where road infrastructure is limited, and where car use is restricted, and where getting around is easy, cheap and enjoyable for everyone.

© Gary Haq 2010

Air Pollution – The Silent Killer

IR pollution is estimated to cause 600,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. It is a silent killer that is affecting the health, well-being and life chances of hundreds of men, women and children every day

AIR pollution is estimated to cause 600,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. It is a silent killer that is affecting the health, well-being and life chances of hundreds of men, women and children every day.

Poor air quality is a problem not confined solely to cities in the developing world. The majority of developed nations still have an urban air pollution problem.

In China and South Korea citizens are being ordered to stay in doors while authorities struggle to deal with the effects of dust storms – orange dust blown hundreds of miles from drought-struck northern China.

In the UK, a report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee claims that poor air quality in British cities is responsible for up to 50,000 premature deaths. On average poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of the average Briton by up to 7-8 months. Not only is air pollution affecting human health, it is causing significant damage to our natural environment.

The Environmental Audit Committee states that the UK government is not giving adequate priority to air quality. Britain is one of ten European Union (EU) member states that have recently been warned over excessive levels of health-damaging fine particles know as PM10, which can can stay int the lungs for days.

The UK together with Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden could face court action if it fails to meet a European directive limiting these harmful airborne particles.

In the report the Committee argues that the quantified costs of poor air quality used to inform policy are out-dated. Not sufficient account is given to known health effects, treatment costs and environmental damage. In addition, the costs do not take into account the EU fines incurred for failing to meet EU air quality standards.

Climate change has become the sexy air pollution issue that has grabbed the attention of government, media and the public. It is therefore not surprising that local air pollution to some extent has been downgraded and is now considered to be of a lower priority. Unlike climate change, which has long-term effects, urban air pollution tends to have more immediate impact on human health and the environment.

The air pollution we experience today in the majority of Britain’s large cities is a far cry from the very visible smog that London experienced in the times of Sherlock Holmes. The 1952 Great London Smog was a thick “peas souper” that reduced visibility and caused major disruption to the city. The London smog is estimated to have killed about 12,000 people.

Modern air pollution is invisible and is mainly fine particulate matter that is imperceptible to the human eye but deleterious to human health. Industry is responsible for 36 per cent of PM10 followed by road transport which is responsible for 18 per cent. The majority of industrial sources are far away from city centres. Therefore road transport contributes more to public exposure to PM10 in urban areas.

Awareness of air quality is a key challenge. The Environmental Audit Committee highlights that many government departments do not seem to fully understand how their policies might affect air quality, the health and environmental impact of poor air quality and associated economic costs.

The Committee’s report calls for local authorities to do more to tackle poor air quality. They recommend that local authorities be given more information to develop local air quality strategies.

Despite major advances and investment in cleaning the air, the silent killer of air pollution is still prevalent in many developed cities. Since about 61% of the world’s population now live in cities, we urgently need to improve the quality of the air we breath.

After all to breathe clean air is a basic human right that we should all respect.

© Gary Haq 2010
To comment click on the title.