“Air pollution is the greatest external threat to human life expectancy on the planet” reads a headline from the recent Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report. This stark warning should be enough to galvanise global action to tackle this most serious and ever-present threat. Yet there is currently no global cooperation framework or convention dedicated to tackling this “silent killer”.
According to WHO, 7 million premature deaths annually are associated with air pollution – that’s more than the number of people who have died from Covid-19 to date, and according to the AQLI report, air pollution is more dangerous to the health of the average person than smoking or alcohol. To mark this year’s International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, I urgently call on global and regional leaders to set up a global cooperation framework to combat air pollution. This framework should be in line with those that address the other two elements of the ‘triple planetary crisis’ – climate change and biodiversity loss.
The Hindu Kush Himalaya region is acutely affected by air pollution from a number of sources, including motorized vehicles, a range of industries, and the burning of solid biofuels, crop residues and household waste. Importantly, this polluted air is not particular to one city, region or country but shared throughout the whole Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Himalayan Foothills – an area spanning hundreds of thousands of km2 across the north Indian subcontinent and mountains. Particulate matter in this region often exceeds safe levels, affecting approximately one billion people who live here.
As the UN air pollution campaigns explain, particulate matter are tiny particles of pollution that penetrate deep into our lungs, bloodstream and organs. These pollutants are responsible for about one-third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer, as well as one quarter of deaths from heart attack. Ground-level ozone, produced from the interaction of many different pollutants in sunlight, is also a cause of asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses.
“In Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, residents are expected to lose about 5 years of life expectancy on average, if levels of pollution persist,” reveals the AQLI report, published by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago, USA.
Added to this gravity, the report continues, “Asia and Africa bear the greatest burden yet lack key infrastructure”. Despite this, there are reasons for hope of possible solutions in our region, as China’s efforts to curb pollution remain a remarkable success—and a work in progress. As the AQLI report states, “China’s pollution has declined 42.3 percent since 2013, the year before the country began a “war against pollution.” Due to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2.2 years longer, provided the reductions are sustained.”
Air pollution has long been on ICIMOD’s radar, and we have dedicated time and expertise to detailed monitoring of the region’s air quality. This includes the ‘characterization’ of air pollution – which means determining what pollutants it is made up of, why, and where, which people and ecosystems are affected by the different types, and how. This point links to a recent publication in the journal Lancet, which compared the global burden of 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories for the years 1990–2019. This study pointed out that, while efforts to combat indoor air pollution have had some impact on reducing the risks globally compared to 1990 levels, risks associated with outdoor ambient air quality have increased substantially by 2019. Today, globally, ambient PM carries a higher burden of risk than indoor air pollution, according to this Lancet publication. In this respect, we must focus our attention to ambient particulate pollution while continuing to reduce indoor air pollution.
In ICIMOD’s new Strategy 2030 entitled ‘Moving Mountains’ we have prioritized clean air as one of four long-term impact areas, and we have worked to sensitize our partners on the importance of accurate data, with which to develop sustainable solutions.
We have a dedicated Action Area to work with our partners to tackle the challenges around poor air quality through knowledge co-generation and exchange. Our work also looks at the link between air pollution and climate change. Along with warming from greenhouse gases, air pollution, such as black carbon and dust, traps excess heat causing the climate to warm, and accelerates the melting of glaciers.
This poses a major threat to people in this region – as melting glaciers can have serious impacts on the lives and livelihoods of 240 million people in the mountain communities and 1.65 billion more living downstream. As the UN states, “improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation and climate change mitigation efforts can improve air quality.”
Air pollution being a regional problem, many studies and reports have presented the case for achieving enhanced air pollution reduction when working together in a harmonized way compared to tackling the problem in silos or in an ad-hoc manner. Together with our partners and funders, in 2022 we brought together representatives from some of our regional member countries to start the dialogue in thinking about air pollution from a regional perspective. The outcome of that meeting was the ‘Kathmandu Roadmap’, which outlined a possible process for enhanced regional collaboration.
As stated here, air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally. It is crucial that we all now “come together for clean air”. I reiterate my call to set up a global cooperation framework to combat air pollution. Join us, to reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air pollution by 2030.
Pema Gyamtsho is Director General at International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).