Clearing the Haze: Addressing South Asia’s Air Pollution Crisis

In the bustling cities of Lahore, New Delhi, and Dhaka, a common threat looms large, blurring the borders that separate these cities. Air pollution, a relentless adversary, knows no boundaries, permeating the skies and lungs of millions across the Indo-Gangetic Plain.

Despite historical differences, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are confronted with the urgent need to address this pressing issue. What are the unique challenges faced by South Asia in combating air pollution and arguments against a generic approach to tackling the crisis? Through an examination of regional initiatives, international partnerships, and the distinctive sources of air pollution in South Asia, this policy brief underscores the imperative for bilateral and plurilateral engagement in addressing air pollution in the region. It calls for a reevaluation of solutions tailored to the economic infrastructure of South Asian countries. 

In densely populated areas of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which stretches from Pakistan to Bangladesh and across the Himalayan foothills of southern Nepal, PM 2.5 levels in many locations exceed 20 times the World Health Organization’s recommended annual guideline of 5 micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m3).  Among the nations grappling with high pollution levels, South Asian countries emerge as the foremost states of concern. The 6th Annual World Air Quality Report has revealed concerning revelations regarding the state of air pollution in South Asia. In 2023, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan were identified as the three countries with the highest levels of pollution. Each of these countries exceeded the World Health Organization’s recommended PM 2.5 values by a minimum of nine times. Of the countries mentioned, Bangladesh is the most severely afflicted by pollution, while India, is notable for having the four most polluted cities in the world. In addition to that, the industrial city of Begusarai in Northeastern India has become the focal point of this environmental challenge. Air pollution poses a critical health hazard in the region, ranking as the third-highest risk for premature death globally. Unsustainable industrial practices have led to hazardous pollution levels, necessitating urgent action from governing bodies. The broader impacts of air pollution on chronic diseases and societal well-being underscore the imperative for concerted efforts to mitigate its economic, environmental, and human health impacts. Owing to contentious industrial practices, pollution trends have risen to hazardous levels. While headline figures on the health impact of air pollution focus on the equivalent number of premature deaths, the wider impacts are hiding in the contribution of air pollution to the burden of chronic diseases. These affect quality of life and have a large cost to society through additional health and social care costs, as well as the ability to learn, work and overall contribution to society. As aforementioned research emphasises that air pollution is not merely an inconvenience but a significant health risk, the need for coordinated policies to address rising pollution levels and safeguard both public health and environmental well-being becomes increasingly relevant. South Asia has emerged as a prominent global hub, unfortunately also for air pollution, with PM 2.5 levels soaring significantly higher than the prescribed guidelines. The sharp increase in the number of vehicles in India and Pakistan since the 2000s, together with the rapid development of industries, urban areas, economy, and population, has led to a greater dependence on energy and fossil fuels, hence intensifying pollution levels. In addition, unique contributors like solid fuel combustion, human cremation, and agricultural waste burning further compound the issue. 

The April 2024 South Asian Development Update by the World Bank highlights the increased susceptibility of South Asia to the negative impacts of climate change, specifically focusing on climate adaptation in the region. The report offers an analysis of local climate adaptation initiatives and discusses the substantial financial limitations that will limit the ability of public policies to back adaptation activities. The responsibility of adapting to climate change will have a greater influence on businesses, farmers, households, and especially poor households, who usually experience the most severe consequences of climate-related disturbances. The report concludes with the significance of policy governed by three principles: implementing a wide range of policies, giving priority to projects that have multiple benefits, and creating policies that balance non-climate aims with climate-related objectives. Various international initiatives in the field of climate change adaptation have put forward a similar tone of policy measures to tackle the air pollution crisis and climate change in South Asia. These findings acknowledge that governments play a crucial role in facilitating some actions, but they also stress the significance of customised strategies that are appropriate for specific local circumstances. Despite worldwide collaborative actions, challenges of air pollution  continue to exist profoundly in South Asia.

Why Conventional Methods for Air Pollution Reduction have Limited Impact in South Asia

The underlying factors contributing to air pollution in South Asia cannot be easily categorised in the same manner as those in other parts of the world. A primary factor is the dense population of South Asia, particularly evident in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. In this region, a combination of infrastructure, cultural practices, and agricultural techniques has led to a troubling escalation of pollution levels. Take, for example, the cultural observance of Diwali, traditionally marking the culmination of harvests and the advent of winter. In North India, Diwali now heralds the onset of a hazardous period characterised by air pollution. Similarly, crop burning, a longstanding agricultural tradition aimed at field preparation and ensuring food security, ironically contributes to deteriorating air quality. This practice not only poses risks to human health but also diminishes crop yields and worsens climate change through the release of greenhouse gases. The repercussions of these actions are felt keenly in urban centres like Bangkok, Delhi, and Lahore, where crop residue burning in nearby regions has intensified pollution levels to the equivalent of inhaling three cigarettes a day by November 2023.

Vehicle emissions in the densely populated cities of South Asia have been a main contributing factor to the region’s susceptibility to air pollution. Since there has been a widespread endorsement of electric vehicles (EVs) and cleaner automobiles has been generally hailed as an essential means to address air pollution on a global level, South Asian countries have made efforts to incorporate these solutions into their economies by providing subsidies and other incentives to promote the use of greener automobiles. Despite these efforts, the absence of small and cheaper electric car models is a significant hindrance to wider market uptake in South Asia. In India, the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) is still very low, accounting for only 1% of total car sales, despite significant government support provided through various incentive programs. The Indian consumer’s hesitation to adopt electric vehicles for personal usage has impeded advancements in this domain. In Bangladesh, the environmental benefits of electric vehicles (EVs) are acknowledged, but the high initial prices are a major obstacle for most users, as EVs are generally more expensive than conventional internal combustion engine automobiles. Despite the implementation of Pakistan’s National EV Policy, which was intended to support domestic production and imports of electric vehicles, progress has been gradual. At present, Pakistan does not have a functional electric mobility infrastructure, as there are no electric motorcycles or cars available for purchase in the open market and there is a lack of charging infrastructure. These issues indicate the difficulties involved in applying traditional methods to tackle air pollution in South Asia, emphasising the necessity for creative ideas that are specifically designed to suit the region’s distinct socio-economic and infrastructural characteristics.

What Measures Have South Asian Countries Taken?

South Asian governments have demonstrated a keen interest in embracing clean technologies and have implemented various development plans aimed at integrating climate adaptation into their broader sustainability agendas. For instance, initiatives like the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) in Delhi-NCR, designed to address air pollution during winter seasons, exemplify concerted efforts to combat environmental challenges. Collaborative endeavours between the Central Pollution Control Board and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change underscore the seriousness with which these issues are approached. In Bangladesh, efforts to reduce vehicle emissions have included importing diesel fuels with lower sulphur content, imposing restrictions on the importation of used cars over a certain age, and enforcing emission standards for petrol and diesel vehicles. Similarly, Pakistan’s Clean Air Plan outlines strategies to enhance methane emissions reductions through various measures, such as leak detection and repair in the oil and gas sector, improved manure management in agriculture, and enhanced waste management practices.

Additionally, civil society and stakeholders in these countries have actively engaged in raising awareness about the health hazards associated with poor air quality, underscoring the collective societal commitment to addressing these issues. Air pollution in Delhi no longer remains an issue limited to Urban India, but there has been collective awareness raised within India’s rural population due to the extent of health issues caused every winter. However, despite the local initiatives, years of research and development, and investments in tackling air pollution, a concerted regional effort on climate combat remains elusive. The absence of a cohesive approach within South Asian States hampers the efficiency of air pollution adaptation initiatives and undermines the potential for impactful change. Without coordinated action and collective commitment, the region risks falling short of effectively addressing the pressing challenges posed by climate change and air pollution.

 The Challenges of Regional Cooperation in South Asia

Cecile Fruman, the Director of Regional Integration and Engagement for the South Asia Region at the World Bank, pointed out that “political determination and coordinated actions at the city, national, and regional levels are crucial for effective air quality control in South Asia.” Undoubtedly, the collaboration between different regions has consistently played an integral part in achieving significant agreements in South Asia. Strained relations between India and Pakistan within the context of SAARC (the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) illustrate the difficulties of achieving consensus in the region. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, stemming from a shared colonial heritage, have faced difficulties in establishing mutual understanding due to their tumultuous histories since their formation. The completion of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) was postponed because of tense relations between India and Pakistan, demonstrating how political dynamics can affect regional cooperation. Although multilateral attempts such as SAARC have encountered ongoing obstacles, some other bilateral and plurilateral engagements have demonstrated potential.  The India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement and the India-Bangladesh initiatives exemplify that progress can really be made with targeted involvement. Collaboration in South Asia has mostly developed through two types of avenues: bilateral (between two countries) and plurilateral (including more than two countries) rather than through a platform that includes all countries in the region, such as SAARC. Significant instances include the current endeavours between India and Sri Lanka to connect electrical systems and the hydroelectric connections between Bhutan and India, emphasising the possibilities for environmental cooperation on a bilateral level.

India’s Role in Regional Cooperation

Geographically and historically, India occupies a central position in the South Asian subcontinent, sharing land boundaries with seven countries and maritime boundaries with two. Given its strategic location, India therefore holds significant potential to spearhead regional initiatives. One such initiative is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which excludes Pakistan. The initiative allows India to assert its geopolitical and economic dominance in South and Southeast Asia while countering China’s growing influence. Conversely, within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), there has been very little consensus over collaboration, prompting member countries to redirect their focus elsewhere. This dynamic illustrates how the interests of a major player like India can shape the trajectories of regional organisations like SAARC and BIMSTEC, despite shared characteristics among member states.

BIMSTEC was established in 1997 with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration, initially comprising Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Over time, it expanded to include Myanmar, Bhutan, and Nepal. Aligned with India’s “Neighborhood First” and “Act East” policies, BIMSTEC fits India’s vision for regional cooperation. India’s pivotal role in fostering cooperation under the BIMSTEC banner is instrumental to the organisation’s success. However, realising the full potential of regional cooperation may require significant changes in India’s traditional policy toward neighbouring countries. India would stand to gain credibility and influence on the global stage by anchoring a stable and congenial region. Moreover, increased regional cooperation can mitigate security concerns and reduce opportunities for non-regional players to interfere in regional affairs. To achieve these benefits, India may need to adopt a more accommodating approach in negotiations with its neighbours, prioritising cooperation over strict reciprocities and technicalities. How India adapts to climate change will be critical for its future growth and success, at home and abroad. A recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report painted a bleak picture for the world’s newly minted most populous country, which faces several major threats from a changing climate, and are already transforming India in profound ways. Historical tensions and political tensions often overshadow initiatives for environmental cooperation, relegating them to secondary concerns compared to security and geopolitical interests. However, in this scenario, international initiatives, such as those led by the United Nations, World Bank and other global bodies, offer additional avenues for addressing environmental challenges in South Asia.

International Initiatives

Efforts from global institutions highlight the severity of the situation. “Striving for Air” report  by the World bank released in 2023 shed light on the phases of change required to address the crisis. The South Asian region is under scrutiny, with the World Bank advocating for concerted efforts to mitigate pollution and its far-reaching impacts. Another notable global initiative in this field includes The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), which is a voluntary partnership of over 160 governments, intergovernmental organisations, and non-governmental organisations founded in 2012, and convened within UNEP. The 2030 Strategy of CCAC sets out three directions to guide the coalition: driving an ambitious agenda by increasing high-level ambition; supporting national and transformative actions by mobilising finance and strengthening capacity building to achieve substantial emission reductions; and advancing policy-relevant research and analysis to provide decision-makers the confidence and tools to make ambitious commitments and take fast action.

The conference of parties (COP) has also served as a global platform to address the crisis of air pollution. However India’s reluctance, along with China in COP28 to endorse a related promise to triple their sources of renewable energy by 2030 has led experts to question its commitment towards the climate change crisis in South Asia. As the world gears up for COP29, there is a pressing need for policy alternatives that prioritise environmental sustainability and cross-border collaboration.

The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) work on Regional Integration in South Asia highlights the importance of regional cooperation in tackling the climate crisis. It emphasises the critical need to develop congenial interstate relations for deepening and accelerating the process of cooperation in the region. While a growing awareness of the economic costs of the lack of cooperation seems to have pushed SAARC members towards increased engagement in recent years, the overarching influence of inter-state relations cannot be overlooked. All major achievements in cooperation in the region have materialised only when such relations were reasonably favourable. According to the report, failure to cooperate can only result in sub-optimal solutions on climate concerns and it can deprive the region and its residents of the significant gains that could otherwise be realised through cooperation.

The Striving for Clean Air Report 2023 by the World Bank highlights that Curbing air pollution requires not only tackling its specific sources but also close coordination among countries. The report identifies six major airsheds (Punjab (Pakistan), Punjab (India), Haryana, part of Rajasthan, Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh) in South Asia where spatial interdependence in air quality is high. Particulate matter in each airshed comes from various sources and locations; for example, less than half the air pollution in South Asia’s major cities is produced within those cities.

The report analyses four scenarios for reducing air pollution with varying degrees of policy implementation and cooperation among countries. The most cost-effective scenario, which calls for full coordination between airsheds, would cut the average exposure to PM2.5 in South Asia to 30 μg/m3 at a cost of 278 million USD per μg/m3 of reduced exposure, and would save more than 750,000 lives annually.

The report offers a three-phased road map to achieving clean air in an economically feasible manner in South Asia:

  • Phase 1: The conditions for airshedwide coordination are set by expanding the monitoring of air pollution beyond the big cities, sharing data with the public, creating or strengthening credible scientific institutes that analyse airsheds, and taking a whole-of-government approach.
  • Phase 2: Abatement interventions are broadened beyond the traditional targets of power plants, large factories, and transportation. During this phase, major progress can be made in reducing air pollution from agriculture, solid waste management, cookstoves, brick kilns, and small firms. At the same time, airshedwide standards can be introduced.
  • Phase 3: Economic incentives are fine-tuned to enable private sector solutions; to address distributional impacts; and to exploit synergies with climate change policies. In this phase, trading of emission permits can also be introduced to optimise abatement across jurisdictions and firms.

The report offers a comprehensive pathway for addressing air pollution on a practical level. It thereby underlines the necessity of regional cooperation in implementing cost-effective joint strategies that capitalise on the interdependent dynamics of air quality.

Forging a path ahead 

To engage better with India on climate issues, the EU can leverage existing partnerships and initiatives such as the EU-India Clean Energy and Climate Partnership initiated in 2016. This partnership aims to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy, promote energy efficiency, collaborate on smart grid and storage technology, and modernise the electricity market. Additionally, both parties can continue sharing progress on implementing the Paris Agreement with the international community, encouraging other partners to follow. Additionally, South Asian countries need to have higher priority in addressing the EU’s international implications for domestic initiatives such as that of the Green deal, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), the European Union’s Deforestation Regulation (EUDR), and CSDDD (the Due diligence Directive) and other related EU directives. The European Union’s Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) serves as a model of effective intergovernmental collaboration in mitigating transboundary air pollution. Through CLRTAP, the EU achieved significant reductions ranging from 40 to 80 percent in various harmful pollutants. This success prompted the United States to engage in agreements with both Canada and Mexico for cooperative pollution management in shared airspaces. Similarly, South Asia would benefit from establishing a comparable multilateral platform to exchange research findings and formulate policies addressing pollution concerns.

Persuading India to further engage in climate action may involve highlighting the mutual benefits of cooperation, such as economic opportunities, enhanced global credibility, and improved public health. Emphasising the importance of sustainable development and showcasing successful case studies of climate action can also offer useful tools and mechanisms while inspiring India to take proactive steps towards addressing environmental challenges. 

In sum, the air pollution crisis in South Asia serves as a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of environmental challenges and the imperative for collective action. Despite the blurred lines of political rivalry, there exists an opportunity to forge new alliances and confront the shared threat of pollution head-on. International initiatives for South Asia will need to address the political realities of the landscape and cater to bilateral or plurilateral efforts to tackle the Air pollution crisis. Only through concerted efforts, both domestically and regionally, can South Asia hope to breathe better and build a sustainable future for generations to come.

Author: Sajla Abdul Razack, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credit: Pixabay