The World Bank’s Mantra For Air Pollution Control In South Asia
From left to right: Martin Raiser, World Bank Vice President for South Asia, Dr Farhna Ahmed, Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and Anna Wellenstein World Bank Regional Director, Sustainable Development, East Asia and Pacific

Air pollution and climate change have never received as much combined attention, at such a high level, as at COP28 in Dubai. The UN’s 28th Conference of Parties on climate change has seen top-level participants from the World Health Organization (WHO), the UAE presidency, and noted expert bodies discuss the estimated 7-8 million deaths annually linked to air pollution.

The nexus of air pollution and climate change is also receiving increasing attention in the development sector, as evidenced by a World Bank-hosted discussion on Friday featuring top officials from China and Bangladesh.

At the event, Zhao Yingmin, China’s Vice Minister of Ecology and Environment, described how the country has reduced the most health-damaging pollutant, PM 2.5, by as much as 55% in the past decade in prefecture-level cities across the country, administrative centers that rank second only to provincial capitals.

He and other officials at the event emphasized how China’s experience could serve as an inspiration for South Asian countries currently grappling with some of the world’s highest pollution levels.

South Asia’s air pollution claims two million lives annually

Zhao Yingmin, Vice Minister at China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, and Dr Farhna Ahmed, Secretary of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate.

Excessive air pollution across South Asia is estimated to cause the deaths of approximately two million people each year, making it one of the most polluted regions worldwide. The region is home to 37 of the 40 most polluted cities in the world.

In densely populated areas of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which stretches from Pakistan to Bangladesh and across the Himalayan foothills of southern Nepal, PM2.5 levels in many locations exceed 20 times the World Health Organization’s recommended annual guideline of 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3).

World Bank Vice President for South Asia Martin Raiser highlighted the potential “triple wins” of reducing annual air pollution levels to the World Health Organization’s interim air quality target of 35 µg/m³ of PM2.5.

These benefits include a 25% reduction in emissions of CO2, carbon dioxide, and methane, a gas 28 times more potent than CO2 in terms of its global warming potential. Additionally, emissions of black carbon, another short-lived climate pollutant that accelerates Himalayan glacier melt, would be reduced by 80%. Furthermore, methane emissions could be further reduced by 25%.

“These are huge co-benefits and create a great potential for triple wins,” said Raiser. “The challenge is that to address the issue of air quality we need to work on several sources of pollutants at the same time.”

Chinese Vice Minister: How we cut air pollution

Air pollution over Shanghai, China.

China’s experience in curbing air pollution can serve as an inspiring example for other Asian nations, according to Zhao.

Zhao attributed China’s success to a multi-pronged approach implemented systematically across various sectors, including industry, transportation, and building heating and cooling.

He highlighted the replacement of old coal furnaces with energy-efficient electric heat pumps, often augmented by natural gas when economically viable, as a key strategy in the residential sector.

The World Bank also played a significant role in catalyzing early action, providing China with a $1 billion loan a decade ago to address air pollution in Beijing.

“With a modest public investment, we discovered that they could leverage more from the private sector,” Zhao noted.

Cooperation on air pollution mitigation can lower costs 

Air pollution knows no borders, making both urban-rural and regional cooperation crucial to addressing the issue, the World Bank’s Raiser stressed.

Last year’s “Striving for Clean Air” report identified six key South Asian airsheds and developed scenarios for reducing average PM 2.5 levels to the World Health Organization’s interim air quality target of 35 µg/m³.

The report found that full coordination between Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh would significantly lower the costs of achieving this target compared to scenarios where countries act independently.

In the best-case scenario, the cost per 1 µg/m³ reduction in average PM 2.5 levels would be $278 million. However, if countries were to act alone, costs could double or even increase tenfold, reaching $780 million to $2.6 billion per 1 µg/m³ reduction.

Dr. Farhana Ahmed, Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in Bangladesh, called for a deepening of regional cooperation among South Asian countries to tackle air pollution.

We all know air pollution travels long distances, crossing national boundaries and multi-country actions are extremely important in the region,” said Ahmed. “We should encourage all the countries in the region (South Asia) to enhance knowledge sharing and good practices and exchange appropriate technical know-how.”

In 2022, the “Kathmandu roadmap” was developed to outline a plan for cross-regional cooperation between India, Pakistan, and Nepal. However, India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, who was originally scheduled to attend the World Bank discussion, did not participate. Officials at the India pavilion attributed his absence to bilateral meetings.

Despite this, India is making some progress in addressing air pollution. According to a report released today by Climate Trends and the Centre for Financial Accountability in New Delhi, 100% of project finance loans in India in 2022 went to renewable energy projects, while no such loans were provided for coal projects.

“Project finance” refers to loans typically granted by governments and others for the development of a specific project and does not include equity or corporate finance. The report’s findings do not mean that new coal power projects were unfunded by other lenders, namely equity or corporate entities.

The total amount of $2.36 billion for renewable energy finance in India represents a 45% decrease from 2021 levels, according to the report.

Finance has been one of the operative words of COP28, with over $83 billion pledged in the first five days for climate action, according to the UAE presidency.

While there are no specific funds earmarked for air pollution, per se, which is typically emitted by the same sources as climate pollutants, commitments to areas such as health, clean cooking, and renewable energy, should yield air pollution co-benefits.

‘Hard part’ of COP28 begins

As COP28 enters its final days, negotiators are entering the “hard part” of the climate summit: grappling with the critical issue of phasing out fossil fuels.

COP President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber has appointed eight ministers to facilitate consensus-building in the final stages of negotiations.

“Over the next 48 hours, this team will play a crucial role in helping bring this COP to consensus around the Global Stocktake and all other mandates as part of the agenda,” Al Jaber stated. 

The possibility of a fossil fuel phase-out being included in the outcome text from COP28 has panicked oil and gas producers. A letter leaked to the Guardian on Friday showed OPEC Secretary-General Haitham Al Ghais calling on the cartel’s member states, including COP hosts UAE, to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, i.e. fossil fuels, rather than emissions”.

Ghais described the need to oppose language on the phase-out of fossil fuels as a matter of the “utmost urgency”, adding: “It would be unacceptable that politically motivated campaigns put our people’s prosperity and future at risk”.

UN Climate Executive Secretary Simon Stiell acknowledged the tension surrounding fossil fuel language, stating, “We will make sure every country has a seat at the table and can use their voices. I don’t want to see diversions and political tactics that hold climate ambitions hostage.”

The opening day of the climate summit saw more than 100 countries back a complete phase-out of fossil fuels. As COP is a consensus-based forum, far more will be required to push a final deal over the line.

COP28 concludes on December 13, but past conferences have often gone into overtime to achieve consensus. The outcome texts from previous UN climate summits have to date fallen far short of the action required to limit global warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Failure to reach this target could have devastating consequences, far surpassing the current impacts of 1.2°C warming. Alok Sharma, president of COP26 in Glasgow, warned that a failure at COP28 will “push the world into climate breakdown.”

“We are literally in the last chance saloon to save our children’s future,” Sharma told the Observer in an interview on Friday. “If you’re going to keep 1.5C alive, you’re going to have to have language on a phase-out of fossil fuels.”

“The language needs to be unequivocal,” he said. “So that anyone who reads the agreed language completely understands that what we’re talking about here is a phase-out of all fossil fuels.”

Image Credits: Photologic.

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