Don't take a deep breath: City smog a wake-up call

Don't take a deep breath: City smog a wake-up call

Dechen Tsering is UN Environment Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.
Dechen Tsering is UN Environment Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Last week, the tapping of computer keyboards in my office was regularly drowned out by loud coughing fits. Colleagues complained of headaches, burning throats and breathing troubles.

No doubt most people in Bangkok could relate. Some of us were lucky, working indoors and somewhat insulated against the worst of the smog. Those working outside -- selling food, doing construction, directing traffic -- were quite literally in harm's way. Children and the elderly were also especially vulnerable.

They will be worst off, all of us are in danger.

Seven million people die every year from air pollution all around the world. It kills more than Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Particulates in the air find their way to our cardiac and respiratory systems, causing all manner of problems. Lung cancer, strokes and heart disease are all directly tied to dirty air.

For decades, we have accepted this as a fact of life of living in a metropolis. Conventional wisdom says that rural residents breathe clean air, while urbanites must inhale a toxic soup of pollution as the price to pay for city life.

Maybe this was true in the past. It need not be this way today. These days, we have solutions for the big sources of air pollution in urban areas.

The smog that rolled in over Bangkok last week was blamed on a number of things -- from cold weather to crematoriums.

The biggest source of air pollution, however, is burning fossil fuels.

In Bangkok, one need only walk down a major street or to the Chao Phraya to see and smell this fact. Cars, trucks, lorries, tuk-tuks, boats and songthaew all spew an enormous amount of particulate matter into the air.

Want this to change? Each person can make a difference.

We can do a lot to mitigate air pollution simply by taking public transit and walking or cycling shorter distances. Bangkok is well-connected by efficient BTS and MRT systems. The bus network is also well-established, though many of the buses need an efficiency overhaul. Bike shares like Pun-Pun, Mobike and Ofo can now be found across the city. If these options are not available, carpooling is a better alternative to driving alone.

At the UN, we are experimenting with an app that facilitates carpooling among staff to reduce our own impact. We will look to make it more widely available if it is successful.

But the bottom line is this: Individual choices add up. Also present in the toxic haze are the emissions from power plants, in particular coal. Coal plants appear to be the cheap solution to a stubborn problem: reliability of electricity. But today this is not the right solution. The price of solar and wind is at the point where these renewable energies can compete with coal. Where the construction, maintenance and operating costs of renewables are not yet equal to or better than coal, they are very close, and are forecasted to continue to fall.

Meanwhile, the costs to the national healthcare system from cardiac and respiratory diseases stemming from pollution further tip the ledger in favour of renewables. In this accounting, we do not even tally climate change impacts or the incalculable price of losing large numbers of the population to preventable diseases.

Thailand a regional leader in their policy to choose renewables, and the government can make big headway in the fight against air pollution with the right energy policies.

And though fossil fuels are the biggest source of air pollution, other sources like open burning and construction dust are also contributing. I welcome efforts to enforce stringent rules on these factors.

For our part, UN Environment continues to work with the Thai government to improve air standards, including by adding PM2.5 pollutants to the air quality index. We have also set up the Asia Pacific Clean Air Partnership for countries throughout the region to share solutions.

From chief executives to common people, all of us are enduring the smog. All of us fear the damage it is doing to our family's health. All of us simply want clean air.

Fortunately, air pollution is a problem with many solutions. The faster we put them in place, the sooner we can breathe easy.

Dechen Tsering

UN Environment Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific

Dechen Tsering is UN Environment Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

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