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Breathing Asian nightmare

Parvinder Singh
Source: Toxics Link, Date: , 2007

Picture of people wearing gas masks in Hong KongOver half-a-million people die prematurely each year from being poisoned by the air that they breathe in some of the fastest growing cities of Asia. Many more end up ill or indisposed from the air pollution that has become a hallmark of the Asian economic boom, says a recent United Nations-backed study spread-across 22 cities in the region.

To compound this shocking revelation, another study by the world's leading investment banking company Merrill Lynch claims that the much hyped investment status of the region may get dampened by the health implications of the uncontrollable air pollution in these cities.

Closer home, India's National Capital may be witnessing an unmaking of its previous achievement of controlling air pollution. A report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), based on the data from the government-run Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), indicates that the pollution levels this winter have gone higher than they have been for past years. In fact, the levels are similar to the years before a high-pitch civil society campaign and judicial intervention led to conversion of one of the world's largest public transport to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

The frequency with which alarm is being raised over spiralling air pollution has gone up in the past few months. Have we lost the battle against air pollution? Is it a case of too little, too late?

Puffing too much carbon in air

The study "Urban Air Pollution in Asian Cities" was released even as the curtains rose on the first governmental gathering at the Better Air Quality 2006 Workshop in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. It highlighted population growth, urbanisation, motorisation and energy consumption as the challenges confronting these nations. Most of these have been the usual suspects behind air pollution for sometime now. However, the study lists the issue of vehicular emissions as the most tricky as it is directly linked to the hyper-growth of these cities.

Asia's rapid transport sector growth is expected to contribute 60 per cent of greenhouse gases in the next few decades. Here are some facts: Indian car sector has grown by 20 per cent annually, since 2000. China is poised to be world's largest carmaker by 2015. Hanoi has 1.5 million motorcycles from almost none 10 years ago. Indonesia's 33 million motorcycles dwarf the country's 7.4 million car ownership.

The key findings of the study indicates that the concentrations of the fine particulate matter (PM10), one of the main threats to health and life is, “serious” in Beijing, Dhaka, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Kathmandu, Kolkata, New Delhi, and Shanghai.

“There is as strong an association between fine particulate matter and health issues in Asia as there is in Europe and the United States, but in Asia the concentrations of particulates are much higher,” the study’s lead author Dieter Schwela was quoted as saying in a press release.

Growth versus sustainability: Asian blend

Though the Asian Nations have by-and-large taken a plunge into the market economy, driven by privatisation and market reforms, the learning from the environmental havoc that the West wreaked during its own march towards development have been consigned to the dustbin by the Asian economies.

With many of them inching towards a ten percentile GDP growth, the issues of serious environmental costs are being neglected by the policymakers here. But, as these studies indicate, this brushing under the carpet act could cost them their newfound economic viability.

The region's booming economies are paying too little attention to the negative side effects of rapid growth. The question, really, is this: will Asia choke on its own economic success? Screamed a recent media on deteriorating air quality in Hong Kong and how it is affecting its commercial viability.

"The air quality in Hong Kong is now regularly so poor that the long-term competitiveness of this city state is, in our minds, in some doubt," Spencer White, Hong Kong-based chief equity strategist at Merrill Lynch Asia Pacific, was quoted as saying in a media report. China estimates the problem could be slowing its growth while Hong Kong fears its foul air is scaring off investors.

"Asia is at a point where it definitely needs to find a balance between fast growth and getting control over the environment," says Wu Hai, a Beijing- based partner at consulting firm McKinsey.

Borderless poisoning: Transnational pollution

Picture of smoke colums emerging from chimneysThe workshop of the Asian leaders also indicates to the emerging problem of cross-border air pollution that can place the collective future of these countries in jeopardy. Pollution can travel far and wide and some real-pointers showing that this maybe happening at a much larger-scale also emerged from the discussions in Indonesia. Researchers called on Asian nations to formulate a pollution control mechanism to effectively counter cross-border environmental problems.

Japan claimed that the soot from Chinese power stations is poisoning its lakes. Coal emissions from India and China are allegedly polluting the air in Bangladesh, while forest fires in Indonesia create a choking haze across Singapore and Malaysia.

"Trans-boundary air pollution is a big problem especially in densely-populated areas in East Asia," Michal Krzyzanowski, a regional adviser on air quality and health for the World Health Organisation, was quoted as saying.

Hinting at the efforts that would be required to create a common platform for Asian nations to come together, he added: "At the moment, there is no mechanism to regulate this trans-boundary problem. You need to agree on emission ceilings and common efforts to reduce the pollution." It took more than 10 years for Europe to come together to work out a regional mechanism for battling pollution.

Silver lining

Amidst these apocalyptic voices, the report also found that Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo have an excellent capacity to manage air quality. Beijing, Busan and New Delhi have been rated as having good air quality management capability. All these cities have achieved major reductions in key emissions but still need to address fine particulate pollution from vehicle fumes.

Colombo, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Manila and Mumbai have moderate management capability. The report says these cities have reduced sulphur dioxide emissions but have the challenge of addressing transport-related emissions. Dhaka, Hanoi, Surabaya and Kathmandu have limited capability and need to improve air quality monitoring as well as achieve further reductions in emissions.

The first governmental meeting, attended by representatives of 20 Asian countries held from December 13 to 15, also witnessed adoption of some suggestions to pave the way for controlling urban air pollution in the region. Some of these are:

* Reviewing ambient air quality standards and air pollution Indexes. Since Asian countries use different methodologies to classify air quality and to communicate results to the public, a comparison of air pollution indices in different countries could increase their effectiveness.

* Developing roadmaps for fuel quality and vehicle emission standards for new vehicles. CAI-Asia has taken the initiative in developing a roadmap to improve fuel quality and tighten vehicle emission standards. This forms a basis for policymakers in Asia to reduce emissions from mobile sources. As a next step, countries are invited to formulate roadmaps for fuel quality improvement and to tighten new vehicle emission standards.

* Addressing fuel quality for stationary sources. There is a need to address the quality of fuels used by stationary sources, which have received less attention than mobile sources. This could start with documenting existing fuel qualities and the impact of using cleaner fuels on emissions of stationary sources. The improvement of fuel quality for stationary sources will in most cases be part of a more comprehensive and integrated strategy to reduce emissions from stationary sources.

* Strengthening, developing and implementing strategies to control emissions from in-use vehicles. This includes the regular inspection of in-use vehicles as well the regulation of the useful life of in-use vehicles and improved testing for imported used vehicles to ensure that they comply with emission regulations.

* Strengthening environmentally sustainable transport policies and systems. To provide the required mobility for a more sustainable movement of goods and persons, it is important to encourage the use of mass public transport systems through supportive and enabling policy and investment frameworks.

* Promoting the use of clean alternative and renewable energy. Fossil fuel is an important energy source, which will be depleted sooner or later and is a major source of emissions. It is important to promote the development and use of alternative and renewable energy sources.

* Promoting Eco-housing. Asia's rapid urbanisation is producing a large demand for housing, so countries need to consider the energy and emission implications. Information is available on eco-buildings with alternative designs and energy systems that reduce energy consumption and emissions.