A Road Map For Better Air Quality in Asian Cities

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Air pollution is now considered the world’s largest environmental health risk.

A study of regional sources of outdoor particulate matter (PM2.5) in 51 countries found that globally 25% of urban outdoor particulate pollution is from traffic, 15% from industrial activities, 20% by domestic fuel burning, 22% from unspecified sources of human origin, and 18% from natural dust and salt.

In Asia, poor air quality is among the top five risks to human health in developing countries of the continent with more than 2.6 million premature deaths attributed to poor air quality pollution reported in the Western Pacific and South East Asian regions.

In an effort to address poor air quality, Clean Air Asia has launched a Guidance Framework for Better Air Quality in Asian Cities that provides a viable solution to the growing air pollution problems facing countries and cities throughout the region.

The Guidance Framework for Better Air Quality in Asian Cities helps policy-makers to improve air quality management. It also demonstrates the co-benefits of addressing air and climate pollutants and highlights win-win strategies which can contribute to meeting the economic and social needs of developing countries.

A voluntary road map to improve urban air quality, the Guidance Framework is organized around key areas of concern. It aims to equip countries and cities with the knowledge and direction needed to effectively reduce air pollution, mapping out the steps and actions to be taken by national and local-level policy-makers  to improve air quality across six guidance areas:

Guidance Area 1: Ambient air quality standards and monitoring
Guidance Area 1 outlines the need to establish/strengthen ambient air quality standards and sustainable national and local air quality monitoring systems to understand the status of air quality and air quality targets for public health and environment protection.

Guidance Area 2: Emissions inventories and modelling
Guidance Area 2 outlines the need to develop an accurate and reliable emissions inventory and apply dispersion modelling and source apportionment techniques to have a better understanding of air pollution sources and their characterization. This information can guide the development of clean air action plans and related environmental and developmental plans and policies.

Guidance Area 3: Health and other impacts
Guidance Area 3 outlines the need to improved understanding of impacts of air pollution informs clean air action plans development and helps engage stakeholders in this issue. Multi-stakeholder approaches contribute to effective co-management of air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions, leading to significant co-benefits with regards to public health.

Guidance Area 4: Air quality communication
Guidance Area 4 outlines the need for an effective communication strategy to inform, educate and strengthen stakeholder participation in all aspects of air quality management.

Guidance Area 5: Clean air action plans
Guidance Area 5 outlines the need to develop clean air action plans that include and/or legally strengthen air quality management in relevant policies and legislation, with the ultimate goal of improving air quality in regions and cities.

Guidance Area 6: Governance
Guidance Area 6 outlines the need for effective governance that aims to facilitate policy development and enforcement. Effective governance also educates and strengthens stakeholder participation in all aspects of air quality management to prevent and reduce  air pollution impacts.

The Guidance Framework also allows cities to be classified according to their air quality management capabilities (i.e. underdeveloped, developing, emerging, maturing, or fully developed). These development stages allow cities to assess their status and encourage them to attain the fully developed stage.

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While the Guidance Framework outlines voluntary actions  to achieve better air quality, its implementation will be dependent on overcoming common challenges faced in tackling air pollution in Asia. These range from a lack of government commitment and stakeholder participation, weaknesses in policies, standards and regulations, through to deficiencies in data on emissions, air quality and impacts on human health and the environment. The relatively low priority for air quality management means that funding is also often a problem.

Hopefully, the increased awareness of  air pollution issues together with the support provided by Clean Air Asia to implement the Guidance Framework as part of the Integrated Programme for Better Air Quality in Asia, will enable countries and cities to move along the road to better air quality.

How Can We Protect An Ageing Population From The Effects of Environmental Change?

sri-lanka-flood-older-man-carried_246x211By 2050 there will be an unprecedented increase in the number of people aged 55-plus representing nearly a quarter of the global population.

The rise in the numbers of older people is happening more rapidly in developing countries where 60 per cent of the world’s older people currently live, particularly in Asia and Africa.

An ageing population has wide-ranging implications for environment, economy and society. Changes in age structure together with an expanding population, rapid urbanisation and levels of consumption are all placing pressure on the global environment.

This presents challenges in eradicating poverty, ensuring environmental justice and achieving an environmentally sustainable development, especially in the least developed countries of the world.

Acceleration of Global Ageing

The interaction between an ageing population and the environment poses significant challenges and opportunities for public policy.

However, policy makers at the international level have given little attention to the effects global environmental change will have on this demographic group.

Older people are a diverse group. Some are educated, fit, active and wealthy, have access to most of the goods and services they need and desire and play a key role in caring for themselves and other family members including grandchildren. In contrast, others are poor, frail and require care and financial support.

There are major regional differences, with poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia resulting in many older people in these areas lacking access to clean water, sanitation, nutrition and basic health care, making them highly vulnerable to environmental threats.

A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute reviews the key issues relevant to global ageing and environmental change. It examines older people not only in terms of their vulnerability to environmental threats but as potential contributors to environmental sustainability. The study recommend three areas for action if we are protect older people from future environmental change.

REDUCING THE ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT OF AN AGEING POPULATION

Elderly woman with social care assistant

Promoting greener attitudes and behaviours and influencing individual lifestyle choices across the life course are measures that can and should be used to reduce the future and current environmental footprint of older people.

This is particularly important at a time when many rapidly developing countries are seeing an increase in a high-consuming middle-class group who will eventually grow older.

There is an equally important need to engage older people using appropriate approaches such as peer-to-peer approaches which could provide more credibility.

Targeted engagement of older people not only fosters greener behaviours but also responds to their perceived lack of opportunities for social involvement and inter¬action.

Recent studies undertaken on direct interaction with the older age sector on climate change have demonstrated that, used in the appropriate way, it is a headline topic that stimulates lively discussion and debate on many issues related to environment and sustainability

Appropriate infrastructure and incentives that encourages greener behaviours in later life will also be needed. Since there will be a high number of urban seniors, achieving age-friendly cities will be important. In particular, older people require supportive and enabling living environments to compensate for physical and social changes associated with ageing.

These include walkable outdoor space and accessible public buildings, accessible and affordable public transport, appropriately designed, affordable and energy efficient housing with access to local services, opportunities for social participation and social inclusion, civic participation and employment.

PROTECTING OLDER PEOPLE FROM ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We need policies that reduce the environmental vulnerability of older people and that focus on each part of the dynamic process that creates vulnerability.

These include policies that ensure people reach later life with sufficient reserves (e.g. coping skills, strong family and social ties and savings and assets), reducing the challenges they face in later life, and providing adequate health and social protection.

These factors will be different for older people in the developed and developing world. In developing countries, lack of basic infrastructure such as clean water and sanitation and health and social care combined with poverty and malnutrition make them vulnerable to environmental threats.

HelpAge International has discussed the need for climate and development strategies to be responsive to the realities of the ageing population and climate change. They suggest without age appropriate action, the effectiveness and success of climate adaption and national development and resilience strategies could be significantly compromised.

HelpAge International outlines ten strategies to coping with an ageing population in a changing climate .

In addition, Help the Aged identified ten basic requirements to make developed world communities better for older people.

These requirements included: adapting new and existing accommodation to suit people of all ages; transport options that meet the needs of all older people; keeping pavements in good repair; provision of public toilets; public seating; good street lighting and clean streets with a police presence; access to shops and services; places to socialise; information and advice; and ensuring older people’s voices are heard on issues from social care to volunteering opportunities.

If we are going to better protect individual countries need to be adopted. Policies that provide social protection, encouraging healthy life¬styles, acquisition of coping skills, strong family and social ties, active interests and, of course, savings and assets, will be important. All will assist in ensuring that people’s reserves are, and remain, strong in later life.

MOBILISING OLDER PEOPLE IN ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

volunteerSeniors’ knowledge of the local environment, its vulnerabilities and how the community responds allows them to play a key role in reducing the environmental impact of disasters. In particular, their knowledge of socio-ecological system and coping mechanisms can in some contexts be critical when developing local disaster risk reduction and adaptation plans .

Growing old in the twenty-first century will bring with it the unique challenge of a changing global environment with variable climate and weather patterns which will impact on all aspects of life. Policies therefore need to be ‘age proofed’ so that they can support older people through their life course.

If we are to prevent and minimise the negative impact of environmental change on older people, there is an urgent need to better understand the interaction between global ageing and the environment. We need to harness the contribution older people can make to addressing environmental threats, while reducing their vulnerability.

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
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Ecotherapy – Healing the Natural Way

OUR disconnection from nature is having a profound affect on our physical and mental well-being. Can Ecotherapy enable us reconnect with nature and find happiness?

OUR disconnection from nature is having a profound affect on our physical and mental well-being. Can ecotherapy enable us to reconnect with nature and find happiness?

As a species we are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from nature. We have an innate emotional and physical dependency on our natural environment. With our “ecological unconscious” considered to be the foundation of our sanity.

As we have developed into an industrial and globalised society we have increasingly replaced nature and all things natural with artificial man-made creations. There is increasing to evidence suggest that this is having a negative impact on our overall mental health and well-being. Depression affects about 121 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization predicts depression will be the second greatest cause of ill health globally by 2020.

In the UK depression affects one in 10 people each year, with more than half of those experiencing more than one episode. According to official statistics, the percentage of people with a “common mental disorder” increased from 15.5% in 1993 to 17.6% in 2007. This is about an additional million extra unhappy people.

In 2008 in England there were 2.1 million more prescriptions of antidepressants than in 2007, leading to concerns that doctors are increasingly supplying the drugs as a “quick fix” without attempting to address the underlying cause of the problems. In total, 36 million prescriptions were given out, an increase of 24% over the past five years.

A survey by The Mental Health Foundation shows that three quarters of UK family doctors have prescribed anti-depressants even though they think another treatment would have been more effective. The Foundation advocates mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which halves the risk of further bouts of depression.

The use of anti-depressants such as Prozac or sessions of cognitive therapy are increasingly seen as failing to deal with the root cause of many mental health problems – our dysfuctional and unnatural way of life. Ecotherapy has been developed to respond to this problem.

Ecotherapy can be defined as healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth. It is considered to be a form of applied Ecopsychology. Ecotherapists address common difficulties such as anxiety, depression and stress using nature-based methods to enhance physical and mental healing.

Ecotherapeutic methods include reconnecting with nature and ones own body, working with plants and animals, voluntary simplicity, detaching from rigid artificial time schedules, changing home and working environments, dream therapy focusing on nature and wilderness retreats.

A book published by the Sierra Club entitled Ecotherapy – Healing with Nature in Mind edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist examines the background, methods and practices of ecotherapy. It covers the practice form working from both inside and outside, using community as ecotherapy as well as ecospirituality. The book is a companion to the earlier Sierra Club publication on Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind edited by Theordore Roszak et al. Both books provide a valuable introduction to the theory of ecopsychology and the practice of ecotherapy.

The belief that the natural environment is good for our mental and physical well-being is not new. Many medical professions including Florence Nightingale encouraged people to go the country to convalesce. The natural environment is seen as being beneficial – a “restorative environment” – which enhances mental energies and reduces stress. Research has show that prisoners whose cells overlooked farmland and trees had 24 per cent fewer sick visits than those in cells facing the prison yard. A ten-year comparative study of post-operative patients found hospital stay for patients with tree views was significantly shorter, they required fewer painkillers, used less medication, and nursing staff reported fewer negative evaluation comments in the medical record.

A study by the mental health charity, Mind, found that 90 per cent of people who took part in Mind green exercise activities said that the combination of nature and exercise is most important in determining how they feel. A total of 71 per cent of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following a green walk compared to increased feelings of depression following an indoor shopping centre walk which was experienced by 22 per cent of respondents while 33 per cent of people expressed no change in their level of depression.

In our Western, industrialised and individualistic culture we often see ourselves separate and distinct from the natural world around us. If we are to address the cause of the current environmental crisis and the impact it is having on our physical and mental well-being then we need to develop a sense of connectedness with nature.

Ecotherapy provides the natural way to healing mind and will help us rediscover our ecological roots. That is why the recommendations in Mind’s Green Agenda for Mental Health calling for ecotherapy to be become a clinically valid treatment option for mental distress should be adopted before it is too late.

© Gary Haq 2010
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The Health Cost of Our Techo-industrial Age

OUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

oilpollutionmaskOUR techno-industrial development has provided greater productivity, choice and higher living standards. However, despite scientific and technological advancements we still fail to understand the full health and environmental impact of our actions.

Human societies have had an affect on the environment since time immemorial. However, the rate and scale at which we have degraded our environment has increased significantly with industrialisation. In the 1960s Rachel Carson’s the Silent Spring documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and has been credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Since then we have see many products and industrial processes which have had unknown effects on our health and environment from lead additives, radioactive waste, dioxins, persistent organic pollutants, tobacco smoke to CFCs and greenhouse gases.

A recent US study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that children whose mothers encountered a large amount of air pollution during pregnancy may end up with lower IQs. The study found that those babies whose mothers were exposed to high levels of vehicle pollution from heavy car, truck and bus traffic had IQ scores four to five points below those whose expecting mothers had breathed less polluted air. The results add to growing evidence of how low-dose exposure to every day pollutants can have an impact on developing children.

112053099_8471013d5dIn Corby, Northamptonshire (UK) sixteen families have successfully proved a link between their children’s deformities and exposure to poisonous waste caused by the clean-up of a steelworks site which had closed in the 1980s. To reclaim the site the local council demolished old buildings and removed waste, steel dust and slag to a quarry. The dirty and dusty operation exposed 18 pregnant mothers to harmful toxins. This resulted in the children being deformed and having missing fingers. The families may now finally be able to claim compensation for having to suffer the unexpected cost of environmental pollution.

_45748842_jex_354946_de27-1While we have used technology to reduce our the impact of our activities on our health and environment (e.g. catalytic converters to reduce vehicle pollution, desulphurisation units to reduce sulphorus emissions from power stations that cause acid rain) we still have a limited understanding of the health effects of certain production processes and chemicals. There is much to learn about the impact of chemicals in cosmetics, cleaning fluids and plastic products. For example, concern over “toxic toys” produced in China resulted in toy producers recalling their products.

Those products which we intuitively think are good for are also sometimes questionable. A report by the UK Food Standards Agency concluded that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventional produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.

Our lack of understanding of the effect of artificial chemicals and substances on complex systems such as nature and the human body requires us to adopt the precautionary principle and to be fully informed about the risks we are taking. Even then there is no guarantee we will get it right.

As we make further developments in nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms and create new chemicals and drugs we need to be mindful of the complexity of the issues we are dealing with and should be guided by nature and natural processes. If we had done this at the beginning of our industrial age then perhaps we would have avoided the pain, suffering and death of thousands of people who were sacrificed for the sake of economic and technological progress.

© Gary Haq 2009

Is Clean Air Bad for the Planet?

HEALTH damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a ‘cooling’ effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution we are lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming. Is clean air bad for the planet?

Gary Haq HEALTH damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a ‘cooling’ effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution we are lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming. Is clean air bad for the planet?
The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil emit gases with small particles known as aerosols. These aerosols include PM10 and sulphates and are found in motor vehicle emissions as well as industrial and domestic heat emissions. They have been linked to asthma, heart problems, lung cancer and premature death as well as having an impact on ecosystems. Aerosols influence the nature of clouds and play a key role in reflecting incoming solar radiation and reducing temperatures at the earth’s surface. They mask the earth from the effects of global warming. While there is still scientific uncertainty about the contribution of this group of air pollutants to ‘climate cooling’ there is an urgent need to reduce the concentrations of these small particles to protect human health and environment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that outdoor air pollution is responsible for 600,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. Britain is one of ten European Union member states that have recently been warned over excessive levels of PM10. 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 particular, developing cities in Asia and Africa are struggling with a rapid growth in traffic, urban expansion and industrial development. This has resulted in high levels of polluting air emissions and poor air quality.

Gary Haq In many large Asian cities you will find street hawkers sitting beside strategic road junctions experiencing the general hustle and bustle of daily life. However these individuals are being exposed to high concentrations of motor vehicle pollutants increasing the risk of developing respiratory disease and cancer. Children ill with respiratory disease caused by exposure to high concentrations of air pollutants will be children that will not learn very well, will suffer in adult life from low levels of qualifications and skills which in turn has implications for their quality of life and the economic development of the country as a whole.

The issue of local environmental quality versus global environmental pollution poses an interesting ethical dilemma. Policies to reduce local air pollution such as improving vehicle technology, installing clean technologies in polluting industrial plants and introducing low-sulphur fuels will protect the health of many urban residents. However, by reducing aerosols emissions we are reducing their climate cooling effect. This could speed up global warming and climate change and thus threatens the lives of 7 billion people on the planet.

Gary HaqIf we are to avoid the inadvertent warming resulting from a reduction in PM10 and sulphate aerosols then we need to reduce ‘short-lived’ climate warming gases. That is the view of the Global Atmospheric Pollution Forum – an international partnership of governmental and non-governmental organisations that address air pollution. Unlike carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for up to 100 hundred years, black carbon, ground-level ozone and methane are substances that have a relatively short-life in the atmosphere, lasting from days to weeks in the case of ozone and black carbon and for a decade with regard to methane. Black carbon is emitted from diesel engines, while ground-level ozone is produced from the reaction of gases from vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and chemical solvents. These pollutants are both local air pollutants as well as climate warming gases. While methane is an ingredient needed for the formation of ground-level ozone. Therefore decreasing the concentrations of these gases by cutting emissions could produce relatively quick climate results. This would counteract the cooling effect caused by a reduction in other pollutants such as PM10 and sulphates needed to protect human health. Measures to reduce concentrations of ground-level ozone, black carbon and methane must be pursued alongside cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. This approach should to be addressed in future climate change negotiations. A global assessment of short-lived pollutants is required to feed into the policy process.

It is clear air pollution and climate change are intimately linked with regard to sources and effects on human health and environment. Actions taken to reduce emissions of traditional pollutants may increase or decrease emissions of greenhouse gases. Likewise, strategies to reduce greenhouse gases can have positive or negative effects on air pollution. If we are to develop effective air pollution prevention policies then we to need an integrated approach to address both local air pollution and climate change. This means abandoning the traditional view of the environment as being made up of separate parts and treating it as a functioning interrelated system.

By taking a holistic view of air pollution and climate change we can ensure that clean air will never be bad for the planet.

© Gary Haq 2009