The World Health Organization (WHO) recently sounded the alarm about global air quality. In the 1,600 cities it monitors, only 12% of people breathe air that falls within its quality guidelines. In February this year, the concentration of pollutants in the air in Beijing and Shanghai was more than 20 times the WHO’s limits. But Delhi was the city found to have the world’s highest annual average concentration of PM2.5 – fine particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 microns, and considered the most harmful form of air pollution to human health – the WHO reported in May.
These are just the statistics we know about: the WHO recently told the Guardian some of the worst cities for air pollution “are not collecting data regularly”.
The good news is that the policies and technologies that are needed to address the two main causes of all this air pollution – heavy industry and vehicles – have been tried and tested for decades now. “Effective policies restrict the amount [of pollutants] that various polluters can emit, and then companies have options about how they choose to do it”, says Deborah Seligsohn, an environmental policy analyst specialising in China and India, based at the University of California, San Diego.
Vehicle emissions standards, for example, can be used to limit the emissions coming out of tailpipes. “You can do that by putting catalytic converters and particulate filters on vehicles”, Seligsohn continues. “Or you can do it by running electric vehicles that eliminate all of the pollution directly from the tailpipe.” Similarly, scrubbers on power plants and switching to clean sources of electricity generation also reduce air pollutants.
Applying effective policy to effective solutions gains another layer of complexity due to the correlated but non-linear relationship between climate change mitigation and air quality improvement: diesel, for example, emits less CO2 than petrol but is more of an air pollutant. In addition, the political motivation to deal with air pollution tends to relate to visible pollution, which is often very localised. Political impetus can fade along with the smog, though invisible pollutants may still remain in the air.
In South and East Asia, crossborder pollution also presents a challenge that can’t be dealt with on a purely national level. A small city-state like Singapore is in the midst of a region where only a handful of poorly enforced air quality treaties exist. As such, it has proposed a tough new Transboundary Haze Bill, which would allow it to penalise companies beyond its borders – criminally, civilly, to the tune of $450,000 – for activities that generate haze over its territory. The main target of the bill is the slash-and-burn palm oil producers in neighbouring Indonesia.
Part of the challenge facing Singapore is that, if pollution only flows one way, it is hard to incentivise the polluter to stop. Indonesia is also the only Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member country that is not a signatory to the legally-binding ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution established in 2002. Nevertheless, the bill has found early support from the provincial government of Riau on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, where many of the offending forest fires occur despite its ‘zero burn’ policy. Riau itself, as well as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are also badly affected.
Monitoring technology continues to be central to establishing an evidence basis for reducing air pollution – particularly the invisible kind. Perhaps the most iconic example is the electron capture detector (ECD) invented by James Lovelock, the father of Gaia theory, in the 1960s. He used the ECD to prove that invisible chlorofluorocarbon pollutants were blowing in seemingly clean air from the Atlantic to the west coast of Ireland.
Technological advances since then have increased our ability to identify levels and sources of pollution. Satellite monitoring technology, for instance, allows scientists to pinpoint ‘hot spots’ where forest fires occur. Google and NASA provided data for a study led by the University of Maryland and published in Science, that showed that annual forest loss in Indonesia doubled in 2011-12, partly due to fires, whereas it halved in Brazil. However, without updated maps on land ownership, responsibility for addressing the fires cannot be established – information which Singapore has struggled to obtain from Indonesia and Malaysia.
In an example that further illustrates the importance of local context as well as modern monitoring technology, China has jumped ahead of its peers in terms of public scrutiny of pollution by mandating that 15,000 factories disclose their air emissions in real time. As part of its next five-year plan, beginning in 2016, it will also cap CO2 emissions.
Democratic countries can struggle to move as fast as China on these issues. The environment is rarely at the top of the electorate’s list of concerns, observes Seligsohn. And so (in the absence of bouts of smog to bump it up the agenda) it falls to campaigning organisations like Clean Air London to generate public pressure for political action. New crowdsourcing technology, like Air Casting, a device that connects to an app to aggregate air quality data, could also raise awareness. Prosecution might help too: the UK is facing the prospect of embarrassing court appearances and fines of up to £300 million a year, for its failure to meet the EU’s Air Quality Directive.
Perhaps this looming prospect is part of the reason why Transport for London (TfL) and London councils are partnering with Zipcar to expand the use of car clubs in the capital, and hopefully lessen the number of cars on the road. According to independent research commissioned by Zipcar, for every extra car made available by a car club at least 14 privately owned cars are taken off the road. Car club members also make seven times fewer journeys of less than five miles than private car owners.
“Whereas a car owner is aware, either consciously or unconsciously, that they own an expensive depreciating asset, and are therefore motivated to get as much use out of it and value out of it as possible, when people join a car club they tend take a more portfolio approach to getting around”, Mark Walker, General Manager, UK, Zipcar explains.
Urban travel cards, such as London’s Oyster, could be used to open club car doors; scrappage schemes could offer free membership of a vehiclesharing club; parking permit cost structures could act as disincentives to multiple-car ownership (e.g. the permit for the first car costs £150, while a second car costs £500).
The start-up ParkatmyHouse (soon to be Just Park), which allows people to rent out their driveway as a parking spot, is also addressing the problem of drivers circling to find a free space. The company runs ChargeatmyHouse too, a website allowing the public to get electric vehicle (EV) charging points worth up to £1,500 installed in their driveway for free, courtesy of a subsidy from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles. This could help to address some the infrastructure barriers to EV adoption.
Established brands – and particularly those offering quick fixes, from personal inhalers and masks right through to low-emission vehicles – could also gain from taking a more prominent stance on air quality. If they are proposing a quick fix, surely they should also look to remedy the root cause?
Tom Morton, Director of ClimateCare, makes the point that “companies that wish to take action to improve air quality should seriously consider offsetting their carbon emissions through innovative climate and development projects, which make a measurable and immediate difference on the ground, improving air quality and saving lives”. Such projects, he says, can help to dramatically reduce air pollution at a local, household level – as in the case of ClimateCare’s Clean Cookstoves initiative, which aims to reduce the two million deaths caused each year by household air pollution from inefficient coal and biomass stoves.
Part of the problem with air is that we don’t see it. We breathe over 20,000 times a day, on average, but pay little attention to the steady rise and fall of our lungs – unless we are struggling to inhale, of course.
More research is needed into the economic impacts of poor air quality on health and productivity. Meanwhile, policy-makers need to pre-empt incidents of smog, not just react to them.
Ibrahim Maiga is a freelance journalist, writing about sustainability and enterpreneurship.
Photo credit: Donyanedomam/iStock/Thinkstock, BarnabyChambers/iStock/Thinkstock