Asia - Pacific, Environment

Air pollution crisis poses risks to life in South Asia

Governments in South Asia must phase out fossil fuels to avert twin crises of air pollution and climate change, says expert

Burak Bir   | 09.12.2021
Air pollution crisis poses risks to life in South Asia

ANKARA

Despite some positive steps toward reducing carbon emissions, air pollution is still a serious issue around the world, especially in Asia, as the continent hosts the top 10 most polluted cities worldwide.

According to reports and live rankings on air quality, Asian countries, especially those in South Asia, top the list and experts note that this is a result of human-caused drivers of air pollution such as a high dependence on fossil fuels.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Shibayan Raha, South Asia senior digital organizer for 350.org, an international environmental organization addressing the climate crisis, said that burning of biomass and plastics plays a role in low air quality on the continent as well as lax regulations on industrial emissions, but one of the leading reasons is the region’s dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal for electricity production.

"Asia hosts the top 10 most polluted cities worldwide, with the highest concentration of dangerous PM2.5 particles... Combined with rapid industrialization, urbanization and congestion, air pollution is becoming an increasingly significant threat to human health in the region," Raha noted.

Mentioning the effects of rapid developments in Asian cities that led to escalating air pollution in recent decades, he cited WHO reports that of the seven million people who die from air pollution every year, two-thirds are in Asia.


'Second most important risk factor for health'

Touching on the last year's air quality report which showed that out of the top 50 cities in the world with the poorest air quality, 42 are in South Asia, Raha underlined that there is a need for promising steps regarding phasing out fossil fuels as air pollution becomes the second most important risk factor for health in South Asia.

"Governments in South Asia have to phase out fossil fuels -- coal, gas and oil -- to avert the twin crises of air pollution and climate change," he said.

Giving an example, he pointed out that Bangladesh "suffers some of the world’s highest air pollution levels" and its capital Dhaka "faces enormous air pollution challenges."

"This is attributed to an increased number of vehicles, high levels of construction involving the use of wood and coal-fired furnaces for brickmaking, as well as the existence of coal-fired power plants in the country," Raha said.

Despite some positive developments and commitments on the issue, however, he noted that countries like China, Japan, and South Korea continue to fund overseas coal-fired power plants.

Noting that fossil fuel use is a common factor for the increase in air pollution in general, Raha stressed that transitioning to renewable energy sources would play a huge role in minimizing the "crisis" in the region.


Role of mining, oil, and gas industries

Also speaking to Anadolu Agency, Sisilia Nurmala Dewi, Indonesia team leader at 350.org, noted that in addition to burning fossil fuels, some development projects led by the mining, oil, and gas industries also play a "significant role" in the air quality conditions in Asia in general and especially in Indonesia.

"This is compounded by other issues such as high population density in large cities such as Jakarta, where air pollution levels consistently exceed the safety levels deemed by the WHO, and where there is a proportionally high number of diesel-based vehicles in use," she said.

She went on to say that forest and peatland fires caused by land clearing for palm oil plantations also exacerbate poor air quality conditions and have disastrous impacts on health in Indonesia and even neighboring countries.

"It is estimated that current air quality levels will reduce the life expectancy of Indonesians by 2.5 years on average, and 7 to 8 years for Jakartans," Dewi noted.

Reiterating that the threat of air pollution to human health has always been an issue for decades, however, she highlighted that recently it has become more prevalent in urban centers, "as intra-migration and economic dynamics have led to dramatically increased urban populations and the expansion of cities around the world."


'Transition away from fossil fuels is a must'

While Bangladesh and Pakistan have the worst air quality in Asia and around the world, the Indonesian capital Jakarta consistently ranks as one of the most polluted cities in Asia, said Dewi.

She said there are currently 10 coal-fired power plants in and around Jakarta, and along with the significant impacts on air quality, this also negatively affects farming, fishing, and other work activities.

"First and foremost, countries must transition away from economies that depend on fossil fuels towards renewable-energy-based sources of energy," she said.

Touching on countries like China, Japan, and South Korea, which continue their overseas coal-fired power plants projects, especially in developing countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, she stressed that this makes it more difficult for countries to shift to renewables.

"As long as governments and financial institutions in richer countries in Asia continue to finance fossil fuel developments elsewhere, there will be limitations on the incentives for governments to enact transformative energy policies at home," Dewi added.

As of Dec. 9 at 0600GMT, the top 10 list consisted of all South Asian cities -- three each from China and India, two from Pakistan and one each from Afghanistan and Vietnam, according to Swiss-based AirVisual, an organization that ranks the world’s cities according to an Air Quality Index.

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