Air pollution in cities across Asia has reached a dangerous tipping point

| 28th November 2017
View of West Delhi

View of West Delhi.

Air pollution in cities across Asia has reached a dangerous tipping point, ROBYN WILSON reports

We spend a third of our days in air which would be considered as ‘off-the-scale polluted’

A staggering 70 percent of the 6.5 million deaths linked to air pollution a year occur in the Asia Pacific alone, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Smog frequently clouds the skies of many of the major cities across the continent, often forcing locals forced to wear face masks when venturing outdoors.

“We spend a third of our days in air which would be considered as ‘off-the-scale polluted’ in Europe,” says Dimitri de Boer who heads up the China programme in Beijing for activist lawyers ClientEarth.

Tiny particles

“[In these conditions] the skies will be hazy, we’ll close our doors and windows, turn on air purifiers and we won’t exercise. It’s really quite serious here,” he adds.

Cross over to Hong Kong and the situation isn’t much better as one resident, Cherrie Tam Cheuk Yi describes, “The air pollution here is seasonal, as wind blowing from the north brings in pollutants. [When this happens] the sky becomes grey and smoggy, sometimes even an eerie kind of orange.

“The visibility would be reduced, if you're standing on one side of the Victoria harbour, you can't really see the opposite side as everything is blurred out by the smog. The air would be stuffy during these times, and it has a subtle smell to it.”

In addition to being a health hazard, these conditions can change climate systems and risk food and water security, ultimately impacting a region’s efforts to grow sustainably. So what is the cause of this damaging pollution?

When it comes to health, the most harmful air pollutants are tiny particles known as particulate matter (PM 2.5), which can get deep into the lungs and blood stream.

Energy-intensive

They are created by a mixture of sources such as dust or dirt but arguably the most significant cause of particulate matter across Asia is from coal combustion, particularly in industry-heavy countries like China.

“Coal is the largest energy source in China, with 70% of electricity production coming from coal,” says ClientEarth’s Mr de Boer.

“There are a lot of heavy energy-intensive industries here such steel, cement and construction and they all use coal as their main fuel source.”

A 2017 State of Global Air report showed the highest concentrations of PM 2.5 in 2015, relating to combustion sources like coal, were in South and Southeast Asia and China as well as parts of Africa.

Domestic coal burning is a problem too, with many families using it to heat their homes. “You have housing blocks that use larger boilers as well as people who have small houses and stoves, which sometimes use loose, low quality coal,” Mr de Boer explains.

Mass metro

Other significant contributing factors to such bad air quality in Asia include poor technology, transport, high population and adverse periods of weather.

As Greenpeace senior coal campaigner Lauri Myllyvirta explains, “One of the worst places for pollution is the Indo-Gangetic Plain because it has a combination of all of these things: high population density; high energy use; outdated technology such as factories, vehicles and power plants; household fuel use; and unfavourable metrology.” He adds that “backward technology” in countries like Myanmar is having a big effect on the country’s air. 

Although, he says that even in countries with good technology such as China, Korea and Japan, the sheer volume of energy consumption – powered by coal – is really the main cause of the problem.

Elsewhere in the continent, particularly in southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, transportation becomes more of a problem, largely due to a lack of transport infrastructure.

Much of the population in Vietnam’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, are heavily reliant on highly polluting mopeds as their main source of travel since there is currently no mass metro network in place.

Simple protection

So how are cities coping with this pollution day-to-day? In Beijing, it is not uncommon for weather warnings to be issued, telling people to remain inside and to turn on air purifiers.

But of course, in countries with extreme poverty such as India, many homes in urban areas have no such equipment and have to struggle through.

For countries like Vietnam, short-term solutions include the frequent use of face masks when commuting, particularly during peak time traffic.

However, more often than not people use surgical or cloth masks, which do little to protect them from PM 2.5. This is why raising public awareness is so important, particularly when it comes to simple protection like buying a mask with a filter and replacing them regularly.

Mr de Boer says that increased transparency and awareness around air quality prompted a significant shift in attitude on the matter in China on both an industry and domestic level.

Public awareness

Greenpeace’s Mr Myllyvirta echoes this point and adds, “China got really serious about air pollution back in 2013.

“Following that we saw 20-30 percent falls in PM 2.5 levels across Eastern China because of new emission standards for coal-fired power plants and a fall in coal consumption within industry.”

This fall in consumption among industry was largely driven by improved enforcement, Mr Myllyvirta says, with environmental organisations given a strong mandate to start inspecting and punishing facilities that were violating the rules.

Mr Myllyvirta says China’s progress demonstrates that a country can deliver on a plan to reduce its pollution but he adds that countries like Indonesia and Vietnam still have a long way to go before their air quality significantly improves.

Clearly then, in the years head Asian governments will have to develop strategies on how best to raise public awareness and implement tough policies that reduce pollution, particularly as they look to grow their economies.

This Author

Robyn Wilson is a freelance journalist currently writing and travelling across Asia. She is a former news editor of Construction News. She blogs at Weird Fishes and tweets at @RobynFWilson.