With smog levels hitting all time highs in cities across the Asia-Pacific region, a senior United Nations official there is calling on Governments to do more, with greater urgency, to tackle the myriad challenges associated with worsening air quality.
“The ongoing problem of air pollution between Indonesia and Singapore is symptomatic of a much wider challenge for the countries of [the region],” said Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), urging Governments in the region to prioritize critical issues of air quality and human health.
“Cross-boundary pollution is politically complex, but it must be urgently addressed. We need more effective frameworks to manage ecosystem services, such as air and water, which transcend administrative and political boundaries,” she said, adding that such matters are regional issues which must be tackled at the regional, as well as national and local levels.
According to ESCAP, urban air pollution generated by vehicles, industries, and energy production causes an estimated 500,000 premature deaths in Asian cities every year.
With more than 1.7 billion people across the region still reliant on dung, wood, crop waste, and coal to meet their basic energy needs, indoor air pollution from solid fuel use is estimated to be responsible for more than 1.6 million deaths. Exposure rates are especially high amongst women and children, who spend the most time near domestic hearths.
“Health is the single most important enabler of development,” said Ms. Heyzer, stressing that efforts to build a more sustainable region must prioritize preventing “pollution of our air, our water, our food, and other common regional goods.”
Indeed, there is little point in investing in healthcare systems and ensuring access if, at the same time, the cost of the region’s growth is the destruction of the most basic environmental resources on which human health depends, she said.
In the context of increasingly severe climate change, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have dominated regional and global air quality discussions. But Ms. Heyzer stressed that: “We must also remember that one of the most serious and directly damaging issues of air pollution, especially in our rapidly urbanizing regions, is the concentration of particulates, which greatly increases the risk of heart and lung diseases and cancers.”
Calling on the governments of the region to do more to tackle issues of worsening air quality, she said that the nexus of air, water, food, energy, and land is not simply an environmental one – it is where social, economic, and environmental concerns converge.
“Our commitment to sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific will ultimately stand or fall on our response to these issues,” she said, explaining that it is through strengthening existing mechanisms, and through inclusive intergovernmental platforms, such as ESCAP, that the challenges could be best addressed to the benefit of all the people of the region.