Foul odour of failed air pollution policy

air pollution in China

One study estimated that China’s faithful adherence to its own current air quality policies and commitments would fail to reduce air pollution-related deaths by 2040.

There is neither economic growth nor political stability without public health. Developing country leaders may learn this the hard way.

Few anti-pollution proposals outclass the creativity of Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde’s scheme to convert fine airborne particulates into jewellery. The Smog Free Project, an air purification tower recently introduced in Beijing, runs largely on wind energy and produces material for rings and cufflinks. Although its scalability is debatable, this project points more broadly to the need for creative grassroots intervention in the absence of effective public policy. While global leaders incessantly pontificate about emissions reduction targets, often at summits resembling political theatre more than substantive progress, respiratory complications related to air pollution continue to kill millions, many economically vulnerable and politically underrepresented. The data is clear about the urgency for intervention, and the content of good policy is no mystery. The greatest hurdle is the political indifference implicated in repeated policy failures.

Air pollution crises may seem like old news, particularly amid the alarming issues now hogging news headlines. While terrorism, political violence, political and economic uncertainty, pandemics, and sea-level rises are formidable threats to human livelihoods, air pollution continues to have an unparalleled impact on survival. An estimated 6.5 million deaths worldwide are attributable to air pollution each year, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The World Health Organization (WHO) has established guidelines for air quality based on the concentration and size of particulate matter; the smaller the particulates, the deeper and more harmful their penetration into human lungs can be. For particulates less than 10 microns wide (PM10), the critical threshold is 20 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre) as an annual mean, and 50 μg/m3 as a daily mean. For those less than 2.5 microns wide (PM2.5), the threshold is 10 μg/m3 (annual) and 25 μg/m3 (daily). WHO suggests that a reduction in PM10 from 70 μg/m3 (a common level in developing cities) to 20 μg/m3 could result in a 15 per cent decrease in pollution-related deaths.

Household air pollution, which accounts for the majority of related deaths in India, comprises the burning of solid fuels such as coal, wood, dung, and crop residue; these are vital sources of power and heat in poor and developing regions. For example, crop burning in Indonesia has compromised air quality in neighboring countries such as Singapore, causing public resentment and diplomatic tension. Ambient air pollution, which accounts for a small majority of air pollution-related deaths in China, comprises emissions from power plants and vehicles, among other sources; these activities are more common in wealthier developed regions.

A closer inspection of geographic patterns reveals that the threat is concentrated in a handful of countries. In findings presented at the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in 2013, 55 per cent of the 5.5 million air pollution-related deaths occurred in China (1.6 million) and India (1.4 million). WHO’s recently released country statistics show that the gap between developed and developing countries is growing. In the 22 largest cities of developed East Asia (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan), the annual mean for μg/m3 of PM10, an average of 37, exceeds WHO standards by only a modest margin. In contrast, the average for China’s 23 largest cities (113) and 122 Indian cities (107) far exceeds standards. Day-to-day statistics are cause for further concern; in late October 2016, Delhi’s PM10 readings reached a shocking 4,273 μg/m3. For more hazardous PM2.5, the annual mean in the same Chinese and Indian cities was 59, far beyond the average (21) for developed East Asian cities and egregiously non-compliant with WHO standards. While Asia’s developed countries are setting the regional and global standard for how to manage air pollution, Asia’s developing countries are providing case studies in crippling policy failure.

Globally, over 80 per cent of cities where air pollution is monitored fail to meet WHO standards. On a per-capita basis, countries with the deadliest air pollution (yearly deaths per 100,000 people) include Ukraine (1st of 184 countries), Russia (4th), and China (10th). India is the 27th deadliest, with 49 yearly deaths per 100,000 people. The top-10 safest, by the same metric, includes Sweden, New Zealand and Australia. According to a recent OECD study, more than 700,000 people in Africa die from air pollution each year. Even paragons of environmental policy often fail to achieve performance targets; for example, measurements taken during summer 2016 found that PM2.5 in San Jose, California, exceeded that in Shanghai on 32 out of 61 days. According to the senior director of air quality and climate change for the American Lung Association in California, an estimated 7,000 Californians suffer early deaths each year due to air pollution-related complications; a 2013 MIT study found that 200,000 people across the United States die each year for similar reasons.

According to the IEA, “the air quality outlook is not set in stone, but rather it is a policy choice”. There is a variety of policy-induced practices to address air pollution: clean technologies and industrial processes, cleaner power generation, “smart” urbanisation emphasising density and public transport, energy-efficient buildings, and optimised waste management. Nevertheless, current policy targets may be inadequate; one study estimated that China’s faithful adherence to its own current air quality policies and commitments would fail to reduce air pollution-related deaths by 2040. The likelihood of consistent, long-term adherence to existing standards is low, and regulatory enforcement at the local level continues to be lax – even in Beijing. Given the appetite for economic growth shown by Chinese and Indian leadership, and given the weak enforcement mechanisms in global accords such as the 2016 Paris Agreement, air pollution will be a lingering and menacing threat without targeted action. Now is the time for domestic constituents, environmental watchdogs, and policy experts to advocate more aggressively for good-faith policy intervention. There is neither economic growth nor political stability without public health. Leaders in the world’s rapidly developing countries may learn this the hard way.


The writers are respectively distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and a lecturer at the Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University. The piece first appeared in the Business Times.