Home Commentaries
Harder to breathe easy in Asia?

Updated On: Feb 08, 2012

Air quality in Asia has worsened over the years, to the extent that flights in and out of cities have to be cancelled and health warnings related to PSI have become a way of life. What are cities in the region doing to address the issue of pollutant emission and how does Singapore fare in all of this?

Together with SIIA researcher Henrick Tsjeng, SIIA Director and NMP Nicholas Fang analyses the policies and measures aimed at tackling the air quality issue in the region. 

This commentary was published in Today on 8 February, 2012.

Even as the smoke clears after this year's Lunar New Year festivities, governments around the region are feeling the heat over rising air pollution and concerns over clean air, or the lack of it.

The setting off of fireworks on the eve in Beijing led to sharp rises in airborne particles early on the first day of the New Year. And while this was soon cleared by favourable air currents, pressure is mounting for the government to get tough on air pollution.

In January, over 150 flights to and from the Chinese capital were cancelled or delayed as thick smog blanketed the city. International organisations list Beijing as among the most polluted cities in the world. This is mainly due to its growing energy consumption - still largely fuelled by coal - and car usage.

Calls for action are getting louder, not just from within environmental circles but also among ordinary people. In China, such vocal demands put a dent in the government's own legitimacy.

Beijing's decision to release data on PM2.5 - air-borne particles 2.5 micrometres in diameter or less - from Jan 21 was a significant step forward for the Chinese authorities. Previously, they had only released levels of airborne particles equal to or less than 10 micrometres in diameter, or PM10.

PM2.5 consists of dust or emissions from vehicles, coal combustion, construction work and factories. These fine particles penetrate deeper into lungs and other organs, increasing the risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular ailments and respiratory disease. In China alone, hundreds of thousands die prematurely each year due to air pollution.

Hong Kong is also planning to have new objectives for its air quality by 2014. However, these targets have been criticised as being the same as those put out in 2009 for public consultation and for being weaker than even those in mainland China.

In other parts of Asia, the problem is also intensifying. A recent survey ranked India as having the worst air in the world. New Delhi was held up as a showcase for air pollution control 10 years ago, but recent government figures have shown that particulate matter has increased over the past three years.

Some of the pollution can be attributed to dust that blows in from the Rajasthan desert and the country's construction boom. Observers say the rapid rise of diesel-powered vehicles on Delhi's roads is another major contributing factor.

There has been research correlating heightened PM2.5 levels and increased use of diesel vehicles. Economists say the trend towards technology such as diesel is harmful to the health of not only the people but also the region's economy. A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong last year revealed that almost half of its members knew of professionals who had left the city due to air pollution.

Singapore has relatively lower levels of air pollution, achieved through rigorous emission regulations, energy efficiency improvements and the usage of cleaner energy sources like natural gas. Even so, the country is not immune from rising concerns over air quality.

There have been recent calls for the National Environment Agency (NEA) to include PM2.5 as part of the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which still cites PM10 levels. The NEA says it has been monitoring PM2.5 levels since 1998, and is reviewing the air quality standards for Singapore and the public provision of more timely information on air quality, including PM2.5.

SINGAPORE SHOULD GET PROACTIVE

Singapore is also prone to being affected by smoke haze blowing in from fires in parts of Indonesia every year, typically during the dry season between August and October, although it can strike at other times of the year depending on weather conditions.

The year 2010 saw some of the worst haze in recent times, with the PSI going above 80 for four days in a row in October and at times breaching the "unhealthy" level of 100. This year's Ministerial Steering Committee Forum on transboundary haze pollution is set to take place in Brunei Darussalam; Singapore is likely to continue to be an active participant in such meetings.

And continued action is what it needs. In 2010, Singapore had a PM2.5 level of 17 microgrammes (mcg) per cubic metre. This is above the World Health Organization's aspirational guideline of 10mcg, as well as the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources' goal of 12mcg by 2020.

The new measures implemented by other Asian cities are commendable but overly reactive. The smog choking the region's cities shows that Singapore can ill-afford to wait until the air has deteriorated to take even greater action. Instead, it must take a deep breath and focus on proactively maintaining and improving its clean air policies to avoid similar air pollution woes in the future.