One Atmosphere

When we reduce air pollution, we reduce the impact of climate change


The global theme for this year’s World Environment Day on 5 June is air pollution — very apt in a year that saw the release of three major reports that together clarify that the causes and solutions of air pollution and climate change are intricately interconnected.

This information helps citizens, researchers and policy makers perceive ‘one atmosphere’ within which short-lived climate pollutants and longer term carbon dioxide impact the air we breathe. It is within this one atmosphere also that these pollutants aggravate climate change.

The flip side of the climate action coin is that air pollution worsens our climate crisis. Black carbon, ozone and other climate-impacting pollutants contribute to additional temperature increase beyond that caused by long-lived carbon dioxide. Our glaciers are melting faster because of air pollutants. Pollutants also profoundly impact the monsoon, and several recent severe flooding events in both of Nepal’s neighbouring countries have been attributed to air pollutants modifying clouds, changing how much rain fell where and when.

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Air pollution is more dangerous than smoking, Sonia Awale

#Beat Air Pollution, Editorial

The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees, released in October 2018, raises the alarm that concerted and rapid action is needed to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change that will occur if global average temperature increase exceeds 1.5C. This is the report that inspired Greta Thunberg and other students to go on climate strike demanding that climate emergencies be declared. As those strikes articulate, climate action must occur over the next decade or it will be too late. This will require reducing not just carbon dioxide emissions, but also short-lived climate pollutants.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment released in February 2019 by ICIMOD, summarises the current state of knowledge about changes, vulnerabilities and risks faced by the Himalayan region, as well as opportunities in clean energy and other sectors. High mountain areas warm faster, so even a 1.5C global average temperature increase implies a 1.8C-2.2C increase in the Himalaya, with a loss of one-third of glacier volume.

The Himalaya is often called the ‘Third Pole’ because it is the world’s third largest store of frozen water. But that store is dwindling rapidly, which in turn impacts water and food security. The report also describes the affects of extreme air pollution on people’s health, as well as on surface temperature, agriculture and the monsoon rains.

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Bad Air

Solution to pollution, Pallavi Pant and Anobha Gurung

For every 100,000 people, 100-200 die from air pollution each year in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Out of 51 cities in the region in the WHO air quality database, 50 have air pollution levels above recommended guidelines: 12 have levels more than 10 times above the guidelines.

A third assessment report points to the solutions. Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-Based Solutions was released by UN Environment in January 2019 and identified the 25 most promising measures to reduce both air pollution and climate change in Asia. These include:scaling up enforcement of vehicular emission standards and post-combustion controls in industries;implementing next-stage measures that are not yet major components of clean air policies, such as preventing forest fires, reducing burning of agricultural crop residue and improving brick kiln efficiency;setting priority goals that have benefits for the atmosphere, such as switching to clean cooking and heating, increasing power generation by renewable sources, improving public transport and reducing leakage in oil and gas production.

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How to clean up Kathmandu’s air, Anil Chitrakar

Green sticker = green light to pollute, Sonam Choekyi Lama

Implemented together by 2030, these 25 measures could allow much of Asia’s population to breathe clean air, while contributing to a reduction in average global temperature increase. The three reports provide a coherent narrative of the interconnectedness of air quality and climate issues in our region and beyond, of the cost of inaction and of available solutions.

The problems and solutions of air pollution and climate change are interconnected: they are both related to human interaction with the atmosphere over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. The challenge before us is to address these multi-sector, multi-scale issues in a coordinated manner. We can learn from others by looking at how Mexico City and Beijing have reduced their air pollution in a short time.

Read also:

Toxic bubble, Ajaya Dixit

Poisoning the air we breathe, Sonia Awale

Arnico Panday is ICIMOD’s Senior Atmospheric Scientist and the coordinator of its Atmosphere Initiative.

[email protected]

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