At a recent meeting for the launch of a new World Bank report on air pollution in Kathmandu, Nepal, Pema Gyamtsho, director general of ICIMOD, asked by a show of hands how many people in the room actually saw the peak of Mount Everest on their way to Kathmandu. Sadly, and predictably, there were no hands raised. Gyamtsho was of course alluding to Nepal’s air pollution – among the worst in the world – that often keeps the world’s tallest mountain peak hidden from view.
South Asia is a global hotspot of air pollution, home to 37 of the 40 most polluted cities in the world. 60% of its population lives in heavily polluted areas where levels of deadly dust particles called PM2.5 – responsible for chronic respiratory disease and more than two million premature deaths a year in the region – exceed the least stringent WHO air quality standard.
South Asia is a global hotspot of air pollution, home to 37 of the 40 most polluted cities in the world.
These particles can travel hundreds of kilometres, crossing municipal, state, and even national boundaries.Further east, an estimated 30% of pollution in Bangladesh’s largest cities originates in India, given the predominant wind direction from the northwest to the southeast.
The World Bank’s new study, Striving for Clean Air: Air Pollution and Public Health in South Asia, attempts to clear the air on South Asia’s nemesis. The study finds that since air pollution travels long distances and gets trapped in large airsheds – a common geographic area where pollutants are confined, creating similar air quality for everyone – it is only through cooperation at the province, state, and regional levels that South Asia can hope to beat air pollution.
Regional cooperation on air pollution: what’s in it for South Asia?
WHO Interim Target I of 35 micrograms per cubic metre (m³) for PM2.5 .– and by incorporating inter-regional linkages, allows us to analyse the benefits of acting together. It’s important to understand that in recent years, governments across the region have adopted a range of policies to deal with the problem of air pollution. However, our analysis shows that these efforts fall well short of what’s needed. Large parts of the region would still suffer from toxic air quality and miss even the least-ambitious
most polluted capital city in the world, were to fully implement all technically feasible air pollution control measures by 2030, the city would not meet the WHO Interim Target I if neighbouring states and countries continue to follow their current policies. This is because the inflow of pollution from these states and bordering countries accounts for more than 50% of air particulate matter in Delhi.For example, if Delhi, the
Reducing sources of household air pollution through business models to promote clean cooking should be one of the highest priorities to improve ambient air quality.
Working together is thus imperative. It would also be much cheaper.But the cost would be enormous at USD 2.6 billion per microgram/m³. However, if there were full coordination, and governments in pollution hotspots operate under a common pollution reduction strategy that leverages more cost-effective abatement measures upstream, the average exposure of PM2.5 in South Asia could be cut to 30 microgram/m³ at a cost of just USD 278 million per microgram/mᶾ.
as demonstrated in a successful pilot in Bihar – should be one of the highest priorities to improve ambient air quality. Other critical interventions include an increased focus on secondary particulate matter sources, including agriculture and vehicle emissions.For example, in parts of the Indo-Gangetic plain, 30% of air pollution comes from household biomass burning. Therefore, reducing sources of household air pollution through business models to promote clean cooking –
direct economic benefits from lower air pollution include reduced health expenditure and increased workplace productivity.In the full coordination scenario mentioned above, more than 750,000 lives would be saved annually, at a cost of just USD 7,600 per life saved. Other
This work is part of a collaborative editorial series between the World Bank, ICIMOD and The Third Pole that brings together climate experts and regional voices on “Regional Cooperation for Climate Resilience in South Asia”. The views and opinions expressed by the author are their own. The series has been funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through the Program for Asia Resilience to Climate Change – a trust fund administered by the World Bank. (to be included in the end)
Helping South Asia breathe easier
The following measures could facilitate cooperation across local and national administrative boundaries:
- Start with better data. This has been done in other parts of the world, including ASEAN countries, Europe, China, and the United States.
- Once the monitoring systems have been created, This could include sharing experiences in tackling key sources of air pollution in South Asia, including household burning of biomass fuel; brick kilns and ovens; burning of agricultural residue; and open burning of municipal waste, as well as sources of secondary particulate matter like fertiliser, vehicle emissions, and large industry stacks.
- The city of Surat in Gujarat, India, reduced particulate matter emissions by 24% through an innovative local emissions trading scheme. Much more would be possible if such schemes were extended across an airshed.
Clean air is essential for our health, and tackling air pollution is imperative to passing on a better world for future generations.
We take one breath every three seconds – around 38,000 breaths per day.As people across South Asia demand cleaner air, their leaders will need to work together to deliver results.
This piece was originally published on Third Pole on February 3, 2023.