The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-Habitat, and a Swiss air quality monitoring firm, named IQAir launched the largest air quality data platform of the world. It consolidated the real-time air pollution data from over 4,000 contributors, citizens, communities, governments and the private sector, to work towards healthier, more sustainable cities, on February 10, 2020, in the Tenth World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi. The report brought into light that urbanisation is one main reason for pollution ultimately leading to the change in the climate.
How will the data be useful to the governments?
The released data would help governments to work on their environmental policies, inform citizens about healthier choices, and inspire businesses to invest in projects facilitating a greener and cleaner environment. The World Air Quality Report ranks the most polluted cities of the world and the contributing climate-changing factors that boost air pollution.
Consequences of air pollution
Air pollution is the source of cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory infections, thereby causing the mortality of around 7 million people each year, with 90 per cent of the global population breathing polluted air.
Air pollution poses a grave threat to our health, ecosystems, food production and many more. However, surprisingly most citizens do not have access to real-time air quality data.
What does the report indicate?
The report shows that levels of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) are affected by climatic events like sandstorms, wildfires, desertification, and agricultural practices comprising of open burning.
It brought to light that PM 2.5 are significantly higher in Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Los Angeles, including others. This is because of the rapidly increasing industrialisation and urbanisation.
Pollutants such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon constitute PM 2.5 and exposure to these can lead up to heart and lung disorders, impair cognitive and immune functions.
The Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Maimunah Mohammad Sharif, said, “Poor air quality is a problem that affects urban populations particularly seriously, so the ability to measure and take action to improve the health of those living in our towns and cities is critical.”
Bangladesh is the most polluted country having PM 2.5 exposure, closely followed by Pakistan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and India, having less than 10 per cent deviation from each other.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is the highest-ranking polluted European country, while Chinese cities have attained a 9 per cent average reduction in PM 2.5 levels in 2019. In the Chinese capital of Beijing, this could be possible by a systematic scientific approach and coordination with surrounding cities, bringing down the PM 2.5 concentration by 35 per cent in 5 years.
Out of the 30 most polluted cities, India houses 21 out of which, six lie in the top 10. Ghaziabad, a satellite city of New Delhi in northern Uttar Pradesh stands at the apex of the report with the average PM 2.5 concentration measurement of 110.2 in 2019 — 9 times more than the level estimated by US Environmental Protection to be healthy.
Previously in November 2019, the Air Quality Index (AQI) level exceeded 800 in some parts of New Delhi — almost thrice the ‘hazardous’ level. As a remedy, India launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) aiming to reduce PM 2.5 and the bigger particulate PM 10 air pollution in 102 cities by 20-30 per cent by 2024 compared to 2017 levels.
Burning of fossil fuels, like coal to produce energy, emits greenhouse gases, which is a crucial factor causing air pollution. China, world’s largest producer and consumer of coal is an example of the same.
Enhanced industrialisation and urbanisation in the Southeast Asian countries like the Indonesian capital Jakarta and the Vietnamese capital Hanoi topped Beijing for the first time by 20 per cent higher levels of PM 2.5 “in a historic shift”.
The director of air quality monitoring at IQAir, Yann Boquillod, believes “Fast-growing cities need to make a choice if they want to grow in a sustainable manner”.
Response from population
People have started responding with rising awareness about air quality after the deployment of air monitors. They are criticising the local governments for inaction and further worsening of pollution.
The report showed Jakarta’s growing population, coal-based energy consumption, traffic congestions to be directly related to heightened PM 2.5 levels. The demand for air monitors has escalated by 200 per cent as per the report, which would subsequently aid the government to spread awareness.
Continuous public air quality data has been made available in Angola, the Bahamas, Cambodia, DR Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Latvia, Nigeria and Syria, the report pointed out.
Yet there remains a vast gap in the air quality data for many countries and the cities crossing the WHO PM 2.5 threshold could be greater. This is evident in the case of Africa, where less than 100 monitoring stations are present for a population of 1.3 billion.
According to Frank Hammes, IQAir CEO, “While the Coronavirus is dominating international headlines, a silent killer is contributing to nearly 7 million more deaths a year: air pollution. Through compiling and visualizing data from thousands of air quality monitoring stations, the 2019 World Air Report reveals new context to the world’s leading environmental health threat.”
The issue of growing air pollution is an alarming one and requires immediate attention before it is too late to act.