The United Nations expects 68% of the world’s population to live in urban areas by 2050. As governments scramble to manage this flood of urban migration, they must address not only basic needs such as housing and employment but also issues impacting liveability and public health – including air pollution.
Nowhere is this challenge more urgent than in Asia. In recent months, cities like Bangkok, Seoul, Kathmandu, and Dhaka have faced major pollution events. But even at their usual levels, 99% of cities in south Asia and 89% in east Asia exceed World Health Organization exposure guidelines. In 2018, Asia was home to all of the world’s 30 most polluted cities: 22 in India, five in China, two in Pakistan, and one in Bangladesh.
According to the WHO, polluted air is responsible for seven million premature deaths each year, roughly one-third of which occur in the Asia-Pacific. In China alone, air pollution causes over one million premature deaths annually, according to a 2018 study conducted at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In less-developed areas of the region, severe indoor pollution caused by outdated heating and cooking systems poses a particularly severe threat. WHO data indicate that the highest number of deaths per capita from indoor pollution in the Asia-Pacific are in Laos, the Philippines, China, and Cambodia.
But polluted air is only one byproduct of industrialization. Pollution, absorbed into soil and groundwater, and eventually pumped through household taps, is seeping into the food chain. Rising levels of industrial discharge and agricultural runoff, together with over-exploitation of already-depleted aquifers, are especially alarming in water-stressed regions like northern China.
Urbanization cannot be stopped, but this does not excuse governments for failing to address air pollution. With considerable resources and capacity for nationwide policy coordination, China should be leading the way in developing a sustainable approach to urbanization that can serve as a regional and even global example.
China has already shown initiative on pollution reduction, which President Xi Jinping has declared one of his signature policy priorities. The authorities regulate car ownership and have earned global praise for electrification of urban bus systems. After a multiyear campaign to reduce the coal industry’s emissions, China recently imposed stricter emissions targets on the steel industry. In May 2019, the government deployed almost 1,000 inspectors to 25 cities, targeting rules violations on issues such as water quality and waste management.
Despite evident progress, however, serious challenges persist. Last year, 33 of 39 northern Chinese cities prone to smog missed their government-imposed pollution-abatement targets for the winter. Measurements of PM2.5 (particulate matter) in those cities rose by 13%, on average, over a five-month period beginning in late 2018. Tackling China’s persistent pollution problem will require stronger action on three fronts: policy, innovation, and awareness.
From a policy perspective, China has a significant advantage: its central government can quickly enact and enforce policies and regulations. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) is reportedly leveraging that advantage to pursue a range of actions such as restricting imports of high-polluting vehicles, encouraging supply-chain restructuring based on lower-emission modes of transport, and boosting pollution-monitoring capacity through satellite technology.
But implementing such policies poses challenges and raises the risk of unintended consequences. For example, while relocating high-polluting industrial facilities has helped to reduce pollution in major urban centers, it has increased pollution in new host locations. More fundamentally, most policies support only pollution abatement, without confronting the urgent need for structural transformation in energy systems and demand patterns.
Such transformation requires decisive action from business. Yet, according to the MEE, schemes to hide regulatory infractions by high-polluting firms are endemic in China and often entail collusion with local governments. By adding environmental protection to the list of factors considered in promoting local and provincial leadership – a worthwhile initiative – China’s government may have inadvertently strengthened the incentive to evade monitoring systems.
Beyond establishing the right policies, China’s government needs to enforce them more effectively. Among other things, this means closer monitoring of regulatory compliance and ensuring prosecution of violations. This will be costly and politically challenging, but anything less amounts to prioritizing profits over human health.
Innovation can also drive pollution abatement. For example, Shenzhen’s urban air mobility (UAM) project, which provides on-demand helicopter transport, leverages the city’s well-known innovative capacities while addressing congestion. Initiatives that advance pollution abatement goals while providing fair access to services among residents should be subsidized by central government.
Awareness is the third pillar of a strategy to tackle air pollution. This does not necessarily mean inundating people with news stories about global environmental devastation; on the contrary, that approach can lead to desensitization. Instead, awareness means ensuring that people understand the consequences of air pollution for their health and that of their families. Armed with a new awareness of the risks they face, people can take advantage of online resources like the World Air Quality Index and the State of Global Air to monitor conditions in their cities.
According to the WHO, a staggering 91% of the world’s population is exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. With traditional global powers like the United States and Australia now largely scoffing at environmental concerns, alternative global leadership is badly needed. If China aims to fill this role, it must not only mobilize its formidable resources and innovative capacity but also strengthen its commitment to enforcing the rule of law.
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