It appears that a breath of fresh air is increasingly hard to come by in Bangkok. On the 22nd of February this year, Greenpeace called upon Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Thai Prime Minister, to address the issue of chronic air pollution in the Thai capital. Between January 1st and February 21st, the city had experienced the worst air quality in its history.
The level of PM2.5 dust (carcinogenic particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres) was at unhealthy levels; averaging between 72 and 95 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This is significantly higher than the World Health Organisation limit of 10 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic meter. The high air pollution level was primarily attributed to badly enforced vehicle emission regulations, and poor urban planning.
This recent example is indicative of a growing air pollution problem apparent in many of the burgeoning megacities across Asia. In November last year, it was Delhi that made global headlines due to air pollution. Some foreign ambassadors left the city, flights were cancelled, and there were motorway pile-ups due to the decreased visibility. The PM2.5 reading during this period was the worst ever recorded; 999 micrograms per cubic meter. Delhi’s own Chief Minister even referred to his city as a “gas chamber”.
The Times of India also reported on the causes of air pollution in the city. Aside from the usual suspects: vehicle emissions, overpopulation, poor public transport infrastructure and factory emissions, there were some more Delhi-specific examples, such as crop burning in surrounding provinces and stagnant winds. While in some ways a perfect-storm for an air pollution event, these explanations do point to deeper long-term challenges that Delhi, and many megacities across Asia, will face in the future.
The issue of crop and forest burning, in particular, is one that many Asian nations will have to tackle to improve their air quality. The 2015 Southeast Asian Haze, where pollutants originating from illegal Indonesian wildfires engulfed cities such as Singapore, is another manifestation of this issue in the region.
When it comes to combating air pollution in Asia’s cities, it is prudent to study where air pollution has actually declined. Beijing. While commonly viewed as one of the world’s most polluted cities, the Chinese capital is making significant headway in bettering its air quality. In the last quarter of 2017, Greenpeace analysis demonstrated a 54% fall in PM2.5 particle concentration in the city from the same period the year before. When the entire year is taken into account, Beijing witnessed a drop in PM2.5 concentration of 20.8%.
One reason for this decrease in air pollutants is what The Economist referred to as “draconian” anti-pollution measures that have been in place since 2013. A cap on coal use was implemented, with Beijing’s coal consumption mandated to fall by 50% by the end of this year. The fact that a number of heavy industries are state-controlled also aided in the government being able to directly manage pollution reduction.
However, there has been scepticism surrounding Beijing’s ‘progress’ in combating chronic air pollution. While Beijing’s PM2.5 concentration has decreased, the concentration of these toxic particles has increased in other parts of China. Heilongjiang province saw an increase of 10.4%. This has aroused suspicion that Beijing is exporting its pollution problems to parts of China that are less well known to the international community.
Heavy industry is indeed leaving Beijing, with 1,200 plants relocating to other parts of the country in 2016. Consumption of coal has never been greater in China, same with the production of steel; but the power stations and factories are now far from the capital.
As the Asian megacities grow both economically, and in population, air pollution will be one of the central issues they face. There is also no simple solution to this problem. While vehicle emission controls, coal consumption reductions, public transport investment and factory emission targets can be implemented if the political will exists, it will require huge sums of money; and will undoubtedly face a backlash from those with vested financial interests.
A number of the other factors that contribute to air pollution also cannot be solved by political will and money alone. Overpopulation is an issue with much deeper social and economic influences. Changing the practices of farmers who burn their crops at the end of the season is another issue that is harder to rectify; not least because of the opposition it will face from the farmers themselves.
However, air pollution is not a problem that the emerging Asian megacities can avoid. It is harmful to the cities inhabitants, reduces tourism revenue, and damages the reputation of the places where it occurs. Real political will, tough policy initiatives, and significant financial investment are a minimum if the skies over Asia’s megacities are ever going to be clear once again.