Air pollution hurts the poor disproportionately | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 24, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:43 AM, May 24, 2018

Air pollution hurts the poor disproportionately

The photograph accom-panying an editorial in The Daily Star on April 21 spoke eloquently of the hazards facing the average citizen in Dhaka. The title “Steep rise in air pollution” raised the issue of air pollution in urban pockets, and the photo caption, “Pedestrians cover their noses as dust shrouds a dilapidated part of Rampura-Banasree Road,” graphically described the perils of breathing the dust-laden Dhaka air. In a more recent piece, The Daily Star reported that Dhaka's air quality has been ranked as the third worst, behind New Delhi and Cairo, according to data compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for megacities with a population of 14 million or more.

Air pollution affects our socio-economic groups differently. “Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalised people bear the brunt of the burden,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. WHO's measures of air pollution focus specifically on concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which are linked with diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases), and respiratory infections. Besides ambient (outdoor) air pollution, the new figures emphasised the problem of household air pollution from cooking with highly polluting fuels and stoves.

WHO data shows that there are 4.2 million deaths every year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, and that another 3.8 million die from faulty, smoke-emitting stoves. Around 91 percent of the world's population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits. Statistics reveal that 50 percent of pneumonia deaths in children under five are due to household air pollution. Millions others face impaired lung function and asthma.

While ambient air pollution affects developed and developing countries alike, low- and middle-income countries shoulder the highest burden, particularly in the Western Pacific and South East Asia regions. Professor Anthony Frew, a respiratory medicine specialist at Royal Sussex County Hospital in UK, noted that the population in richer countries is largely spared the worst health effects of air pollution. He also noted the developing world is bearing the brunt of air pollution in part due to consumer demand from wealthier nations.

Professor Frew's finding reminds me of an interesting dialogue that took place a quarter century ago. In 1991, Professor Lawrence Summers, my former boss at Harvard, had written an internal memo “tongue-in-cheek” to address a thorny issue debated then, i.e. environmental equity. Summers, who was the chief economist of the World Bank then, alluded to “proposals for more pollution in LDCs (Least Developed Countries)”, and weighed in on the option of “encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs.” Many took Summers' comments at face value and suggested that LDCs, which at that time had less pollution than the industrialised countries, could be compensated to take on the role of global “carbon sink”. Referring to developing countries, he continued, “Their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare-enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.” The WHO report only confirms that the hypothetical scenario conjured up in Summers' memo has come true!

Air pollutants come in various shapes and sizes, and are broadly divided into three groups: criteria pollutants, air toxics, and biological pollutants. The major criteria pollutants that affect air quality are nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particles (PM10 and PM2.5), sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead. WHO Air quality guidelines offer global guidance on thresholds and limits for the first four. Air toxics, sometimes referred to as “hazardous air pollutants”, include “gaseous, aerosol or particulate pollutants that are present in the air in low concentrations” and come from motor vehicle emissions, solid fuel combustion, industrial emissions, and materials such as paints and adhesives in new buildings. Finally, biological pollutants “arise from sources such as microbiological contamination, e.g. moulds, the skin of animals and humans, and the remains and dropping of pests such as cockroaches.” Biological pollutants can be airborne and can have a significant impact on indoor air quality.

Coming back to the issue of equity, if the air quality of poorer countries currently is materially worse than that of the affluent ones, do we have an ipso facto stronger case to ask the developed countries for an equitable distribution of the burden of air pollution? Primarily, in the post-Paris Accord era, it is time for the developed countries to own up to their promise of a “global fund” which will allow developing countries to not only mitigate and adapt to climate change, but enable technology transfers for a smog-free urban environment.

Climate funds would not only support adaptation and mitigation efforts to combat the effects of past CO2 emissions, but simultaneously allow newly emerging nations to explore cleaner fuel options and embrace “sustainable development”. This appeal for resource transfer is complementary to the traditional argument for “climate change” funds.

Pending the availability of the promised “climate funds”, Bangladesh needs to gear up on its own with attention to fuel efficiency, vehicle inspections, conversion of brick kilns, inspection of construction sites, and adoption of best practices in municipal waste management, among others. For example, tariffs on imported motor vehicles could be lower for electric and hybrid, and based on MPG. All major automakers, including Toyota, VW and GM, have embraced fuel efficiency standards in response to consumer demands and government regulations. Bangladesh may proactively embrace fuel efficiency standards similar to India to improve the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks (trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles) imported or produced for sale in Bangladesh. In a public-private partnership, environmental groups may also be brought in to help develop clean transport strategies that improve the efficiency of vehicles by promoting deployment of cleaner fuels, improved vehicular emission standards, and standards for fuel economy performance.

Admittedly, Bangladesh is caught in a bind. Projections show that if demand for electricity grows at 7-10 percent rate a year, the power sector will need to more than double power generation to over 30,000 megawatts by 2030. If our future economic growth is based on fossil fuels, we need to address policy areas such as geographical location of industries, costs and benefits of ultra-supercritical turbines for power plants, and a regulatory framework to ensure a “clean coal” chain. In this respect, we might learn a lesson or two from China as it pulled back from the brink of ecological disaster.

To quote The Daily Star editorial, “Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management can effectively reduce key sources of ambient air pollution” and also lead to improved indoor air quality.


Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist, and Senior Research Fellow at the International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA. His new book Economic Crosscurrents will be published later this year.


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