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How can Asian cities better manage air quality?

A major conference in South Korea highlights the need for a systematic approach to tackling air pollution and the tools and resources to help cities take action.

Gary Haq / Published on 15 September 2016
People walking in a city with thick hazy air

A particularly bad air quality day in Anyang, Henan Province, China, in 2013. Photo: Polywoda / Flickr.

Air pollution is a serious problem in many Asian cities, but city authorities’ efforts to improve air quality are often hampered by limited funds, human resources and technical capacity. As a result, even the extent of pollution is not always known, and appropriate measures are not taken.

Three of my SEI colleagues and I travelled to Busan, South Korea recently for a major conference organized by Clean Air Asia and the International Union of Air Pollution Prevention and Environmental Protection Associations. The five-day event brought together researchers, practitioners and policy-makers from around the world to find clean air solutions for cities.

This is a significant issue for the region. In 2012, air pollution was responsible for more than 2.6 million premature deaths in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. As the urban population expands, the urban air quality is a growing concern. Sixteen of the world’s 29 megacities (urban agglomerations of more than 10 million people) are in Asia; by 2030, the number of megacities is expected to grow to 41, with 23 in Asia.

A systematic approach

A key insight from the conference is that a systematic and integrated air quality management (AQM) approach is necessary to protect human health and well-being as well as flora and fauna, ecosystems and material assets.

A number of cities in Asia have adopted pollution control measures that have resulted in a continuous improvement in air quality. For example, 74 major Chinese cities have seen the annual average concentrations of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide decrease since 2014. However, studies have shown that some Asian cities are failing to respond quickly enough to the changing urban landscape and evolving air pollution problems. This is partly due to the scope and effectiveness of the measures taken and the absence of a comprehensive AQM system.

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Taking stock

Clean Air Asia is now piloting a tool called the Clean Air Scorecard to help city authorities to take stock of their AQM approach and identify priority areas for action. The Scorecard assesses four components: air quality measurement capacity, data assessment and availability, emissions inventory, and AQM management enabling capacity. It provides a quick snapshot on the overall status of AQM in a city ranging from underdeveloped, developing, emerging, maturing and fully developed.

Once a city authority has identified a particular area for improvement, it can then take appropriate action. The Guidance Framework for Better Air Quality in Asian Cities outlines a voluntary road map to improve urban air quality. Organized around six key areas of concern (ambient air quality standards and monitoring, emissions inventories and modelling, health and other impacts, air quality communication, clean air action plans, and governance), the framework aims to equip cities with the knowledge and direction needed to effectively reduce air pollution by mapping out the steps to be taken by national and local-level policy-makers.

Video: Clean Air Asia / YouTube.

A number of AQM training programmes are available as well, such as Clean Air for Smaller Cities. Together with online educational resources, such initiatives enable Asian local and government officials to further develop their capacity to address priority areas identified in the Scorecard Assessment and implement the steps outlined in the Guidance Framework.

Partnerships for clean air

As well as training programmes, much can be gained and learned through collaboration and sharing between cities and countries. “Twinning” promotes inter-city and region-wide sharing of information and experiences towards generating insights that will hopefully encourage implementation of the good practices of cities and countries.

The Asian Development Bank’s Technical Assistance on Mainstreaming Air Quality in Urban Development through South-South Twinning aims to address challenges of AQM in Asian cities by promoting long term-planning and identifying strategies for South-South twinning to facilitate sharing and learning of good urban AQM practices in Asia.

While the best practice approaches to managing air quality may not always achieve the similar level of success when applied in a different context, they do give an insight into tackling a particular issue. This is especially the case when core elements are adapted for local circumstances.

Motivating change

In order to motivate and reward cities to take action, the Cities Clean Air Partnership is developing a certification programme to support progressive and sustainable advances in air quality. The programme will enable cities to communicate the achievements that they have made towards better air quality management goals through a “seal of approval” (or eco-label). The programme offers international recognition for cities taking significant steps to improve the air quality. It is anticipated that there will be three levels of certification (Bronze, Silver and Gold).

The bronze level, targeted at cities building capacity, will be piloted in 2016 in five cities before being opened to wider participation: Baguio, Iloilo and Santa Rosa in the Philippines, Malang in Indonesia, and Kathmandu in Nepal. Following this level, cities will be assessed based on the level of effort they make relative to their resources.

Maximizing air and climate co-benefits

Cities are responsible for around 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While carbon dioxide (CO2) has warming influences on the climate in the long term, short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon – a primary component of particulate matter – and methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near term.

Taking a co-benefits approach addresses air and climate pollutants and helps identify and implement win-win strategies that help meet the economic and social development needs of developing countries. Technologies and strategies targeting short-lived climate pollutants are able to reduce both near-term warming as well as air pollution levels. In Asia, the reduction of black emissions from diesel vehicles and biomass cook stoves, and reducing methane emissions from coal mining, oil and gas production and municipal waste are estimated to bring about significant air and climate benefits.

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Measures to reduce emissions from transportation, such as avoiding traffic congestion or public campaigns encouraging non-motorized transport (e.g. cycling and walking), can also provide additional benefits for human well-being, such as increased physical activity.

No excuses

Achieving better air quality in Asian cities requires local solutions that exploit the multiple benefits associated with quick actions to improve air quality while mitigating both short-lived climate pollutants and long-lived greenhouse gases.

There are a number of initiatives, guidance and tools available to assist Asian cities authorities in this task. All that is required is the political will and organizational interest to adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach to managing air quality and achieving air and climate benefits.

This post is adapted from Gary Haq’s blog, A Human Ecologist’s View, where it first appeared.

Source: A Human Ecologist’s View, UK

Written by

Gary Haq, Senior Research Assoicate at SEI
Gary Haq

Senior Research Associate

SEI York

Topics and subtopics
Air : Pollution, Cities / Health : Pollution
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