Back to news

Ensure clean air for blue skies: urgent call for global convention on air pollution

Pema Gyamtsho

4 mins Read

70% Complete

“Air pollution is the greatest external threat to human life expectancy on the planet” reads a headline from the recent Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report. This stark warning should be enough to galvanise global action to tackle this most serious and ever-present threat. Yet there is currently no global cooperation framework or convention dedicated to tackling this “silent killer”. According to WHO, 7 million premature deaths annually are associated with air pollution – that’s more than the number of people who have died from Covid-19 to date, and according to the AQLI report, air pollution is more dangerous to the health of the average person than smoking or alcohol. To mark this year’s International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, I urgently call on global and regional leaders to set up a global cooperation framework to combat air pollution. This framework should be in line with those that address the other two elements of the ‘triple planetary crisis’ – climate change and biodiversity loss.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya region is acutely affected by air pollution from a number of sources, including motorised vehicles, a range of industries, and the burning of solid biofuels, crop residues and household waste. Importantly, this polluted air is not particular to one city, region or country but shared throughout the whole Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Himalayan Foothills – an area spanning hundreds of thousands of km2 across the north Indian subcontinent and mountains. Particulate matter in this region often exceeds safe levels, affecting approximately one billion people who live here.

As the UN air pollution campaigns explain, particulate matter are tiny particles of pollution that penetrate deep into our lungs, bloodstream and organs. These pollutants are responsible for about one-third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer, as well as one quarter of deaths from heart attack. Ground-level ozone, produced from the interaction of many different pollutants in sunlight, is also a cause of asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses.

“In Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, residents are expected to lose about 5 years of life expectancy on average, if levels of pollution persist,” reveals the AQLI report, published by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago, USA.

Added to this gravity, the report continues, “Asia and Africa bear the greatest burden yet lack key infrastructure”. Despite this, there are reasons for hope of possible solutions in our region, as China’s efforts to curb pollution remain a remarkable success—and a work in progress. As the AQLI report states, “China’s pollution has declined 42.3 percent since 2013, the year before the country began a “war against pollution.” Due to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2.2 years longer, provided the reductions are sustained.”

Air pollution has long been on ICIMOD’s radar, and we have dedicated time and expertise to detailed monitoring of the region’s air quality. This includes the ‘characterisation’ of air pollution – which means determining what pollutants it is made up of, why, and where, which people and ecosystems are affected by the different types, and how. This point links to a recent publication in the journal Lancet, which compared the global burden of 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories for the years 1990–2019. This study pointed out that, while efforts to combat indoor air pollution have had some impact on reducing the risks globally compared to 1990 levels, risks associated with outdoor ambient air quality have increased substantially by 2019. Today, globally, ambient PM carries a higher burden of risk than indoor air pollution, according to this Lancet publication. In this respect, we must focus our attention to ambient particulate pollution while continuing to reduce indoor air pollution.

In ICIMOD’s new Strategy 2030 entitled ‘Moving Mountains’ we have prioritised clean air as one of four long-term impact areas, and we have worked to sensitise our partners on the importance of accurate data, with which to develop sustainable solutions. We have a dedicated Action Area to work with our partners to tackle the challenges around poor air quality through knowledge co-generation and exchange. Our work also looks at the link between air pollution and climate change. Along with warming from greenhouse gases, air pollution, such as black carbon and dust, traps excess heat causing the climate to warm, and accelerates the melting of glaciers. This poses a major threat to people in this region – as melting glaciers can have serious impacts on the lives and livelihoods of 240 million people in the mountain communities and 1.65 billion more living downstream. As the UN states, “improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation and climate change mitigation efforts can improve air quality.”

Air pollution being a regional problem, many studies and reports have presented the case for achieving enhanced air pollution reduction when working together in a harmonised way compared to tackling the problem in silos or in an ad-hoc manner. Together with our partners and funders, in 2022 we brought together representatives from some of our regional member countries to start the dialogue in thinking about air pollution from a regional perspective. The outcome of that meeting was the ‘Kathmandu Roadmap’, which outlined a possible process for enhanced regional collaboration.

As stated here, air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally. It is crucial that we all now “come together for clean air”. I reiterate my call to set up a global cooperation framework to combat air pollution. Join us, to reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air pollution by 2030.


Stay current

Stay up to date on what’s happening around the HKH with our most recent publications and find out how you can help by subscribing to our mailing list.

Sign Up
2019 in retrospect: A year of impactful work

Dear friends and supporters of ICIMOD, I am pleased to share with you our Annual Report 2019 ...

WED 2010 Message

The Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region is among the most fragile and biodiversity-rich areas in the world. The biodiversity significance of ...

22 May 2020 Biodiversity
Building a future in harmony with nature

This year’s theme for the International Day of Biological Diversity, “Our solutions are in nature”, is a timely reminder to ...

After the quake

ICIMOD staff are all safe. Some had minor injuries, several experienced severe damage to their homes, while others experienced tragedy ...

HKH Call to Action

It has been absolutely delightful to see the response and acceptance, across the board, of the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment ...

How ICIMOD responded to Nepal’s relief and recovery efforts

In a humanitarian response, and in consultation with the Government of Nepal, ICIMOD provided immediate relief support to partners, communities, ...

International Women’s Day 2014

The impacts of multiple drivers of change such as climate change, globalization, land use change, economic liberalization, migration, etc. have ...

11 Sep 2023 China CN

近期的空气质量寿命指数(AQLI)报告标题为:“空气污染是地球上人类预期寿命面临的最大外部威胁”。这一严厉警告应该足以激励全球采取行动应对这一最严重且无处不在的威胁。然而,目前还没有专门针对这一“沉默杀手”的全球合作框架或公约。据世界卫生组织称,每年有 700 万人过早死亡与空气污染有关,这比迄今为止死于 Covid-19 的人数还多,而且根据该报告,空气污染对普通人的健康危害比吸烟或酗酒还大。为纪念今年国际清洁空气蓝天日,我紧急呼吁全球和地区领导人建立应对空气污染的全球合作框架。该框架应与解决“三重地球危机”的其中两个要素——气候变化和生物多样性丧失——的框架保持一致。 兴都库什-喜马拉雅地区受到的空气污染的严重影响,根源有很多,包括:机动车辆、工业、焚烧固体生物燃料、农作物秸秆和家庭废物。重要的是,这类受污染的空气并不是某个城市、地区或国家特有的,而是整个印度河-恒河平原和喜马拉雅山麓——横跨北印度次大陆和山脉的数十万平方公里的区域——所共有的。该地区空气中的悬浮颗粒经常超过安全水平,影响着居住在这里的大约十亿人。 正如联合国空气污染倡议所解释的,颗粒物是微小的污染颗粒,这些微小、肉眼看不见的颗粒污染物会深入我们的肺部、血液和身体。约三分之一的中风、慢性呼吸道疾病和肺癌死亡病例以及四分之一的心脏病死亡病例都因这些污染物造成。阳光下许多不同污染物相互作用产生的地面臭氧也是哮喘和慢性呼吸道疾病的原因之一。 美国芝加哥大学能源政策研究所发布的空气质量寿命指数报告显示:“如果污染水平将持续,孟加拉国、印度、尼泊尔和巴基斯坦的居民预计平均寿命会缩短约 5 年。” 报告继续指出,“亚洲和非洲负担最重,但缺乏关键基础设施”。尽管如此,我们还是有理由希望在我们的地区找到可能的解决方案,因为中国在空气污染防治的努力仍然取得了显着成功,而且工作仍在进行中。正如该报告所述,“自 2013 年(即中国开始“反污染之战”的前一年)以来,中国的污染已下降了 42.3%。由于这些改善,如果减排持续,中国公民的平均寿命预计会延长 2.2 年。”