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Celebrating the World Environment Day 2019

David James Molden

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Fifty out of fifty one cities in northern South Asia and the Hindu Kush Himalaya that appear in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality database do not meet the recommended guideline of annual average fine particle concentration (PM2.5) below 10 micrograms per cubic metre. Twelve of these cities have air pollution that is at least more than 10 times above the guideline value. Many more cities with extremely unhealthy air don’t appear in the WHO database; neither do vast rural areas with bad air quality.

This figure from the recently published The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People report graphically represents these fifty one cities and the recorded level of air pollution.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, 2019
Figure © The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, 2019


In recent years much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and many Himalayan valleys have seen rapid increases in air pollution. Economic growth has been accompanied by rapid increase in motor vehicles, industrial production, brick and cement buildings and the production of garbage that is often burned.

While hundreds of millions of people still face extreme air pollution inside their homes while cooking with solid fuels, changes in agricultural practices have also contributed to increased emissions. Across the plains, hand-harvesting of rice and wheat has been replaced by combine harvesters that leave tall stubble in the fields that are often burned. During the “burning season” in November and April smoke from agricultural fires dominates over other pollution sources not just in rural areas but even in cities like Delhi.

Air pollution’s toll on health is immense in our region. In Delhi, lung surgeon Dr Arvind Kumar has examined and recorded lungs of 30 year old non-smokers that are as damaged as the lungs of 60 year old life-long smokers used to be. Air pollution does not only damage lungs; it also increases incidences of stroke and heart attacks. For every 100,000 people, between 100 and 200 die from air pollution each year in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. In Nepal, outdoor air pollution kills more people every year than the 2015 earthquake did.

Air pollution also worsens the climate crisis. Black carbon, ozone and other short-lived climate pollutants contribute additional warming beyond that caused by carbon dioxide. Himalayan glaciers are melting faster because of air pollutants. Pollutants also profoundly impact the monsoon, with documented flooding events in recent years where air pollutants modified clouds, changing how much rain fell where and when.

The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees, released in early October 2018, raises the alarm about catastrophic impacts of climate change if the global average temperature increase exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report shows that concerted and rapid action is needed within the next decade if the 1.5 degree target is to be met. This requires reducing not just CO2 emissions but also addressing air pollutants that have a climate impact. The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, launched at ICIMOD in February, rings an even louder alarm: Even a 1.5 degree global average temperature increase implies 1.8 to 2.2 degrees of warming in the mountains and a loss of one third of our glacier volume, with major downstream consequences.

Another recent assessment focuses on the solutions. Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-Based Solutions, released by UN Environment in January, uses a systematic approach to identify the twenty-five most promising measures that reduce both air pollution and climate change in Asia. Often the same measure contributes to reductions in both CO2 and air pollutants. The measures include scaling up of conventional air quality measures (such as enforcing vehicular emission standards and post-combustion controls in industries), implementation of next-stage measures that are not yet major components of clean air policies (such as preventing forest fires, reducing agricultural crop residue burning and improving brick kiln efficiency), as well as measures that contribute to development priority goals that have benefits for the atmosphere (such as switching to clean cooking and heating, increasing power generation by renewable sources, improving public transport, and improving leakage controls in oil and gas production).  The report quantifies the benefits of each measure and of all 25 measures for Asia’s different sub-regions. Together they could allow much of Asia’s population to breathe clean air, while contributing to a reduction in average global temperature increase.

Together the three reports provide a clear picture of the interconnectedness of air quality and climate issues in the HKH region and beyond, of the cost of inaction, and of the available solutions. The problems and solutions of air pollution and climate change are interconnected; they are both related to human interaction with the atmosphere over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. Effectively addressing them requires a strong scientific evidence base, but just as importantly, strong public awareness, leadership, coordination across boundaries and across different levels of government, and mechanisms to quickly scale up solutions. We can draw inspiration from the experiences of others. Mexico City has cleaned up its air pollution and many Chinese cities have made tremendous progress. These places show that it requires persistence, often a step by step approach, and a strong public voice to make it happen. The first step is to ask ourselves, “What can we do?” It requires everyone, including you, reader, to be aware of how you are affecting the atmosphere. How does your garbage get disposed? Do your travels pollute the air?  How far away do the things that you buy originate, and how do they reach you?

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