Together for Clean Air: Governance of transboundary air pollution for blue skies

This year’s theme for International Day of  Clean Air for Blue Skies, ‘Together for Clean Air’, couldn’t be more pressing. Transboundary air pollution across international boundaries as well as provincial boundaries within a country is a health hazard and contributes to a significant part of pollution throughout, but in some places, it can be more hazardous than others. Air pollution control strategies applied to address ambient air quality must consider an airshed wide approach to tackle transboundary air pollution, while they deal with local sources of pollution, otherwise, even the best intended strategies may not yield a desirable outcome towards protecting public health. 

The Indo-Gangetic Plains that spread over Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh is perhaps the most striking example of where transboundary air pollution is a significant challenge that adversely impacts the population over a vast region as pollution spills from one country to another and, within the country,  from one state to the neighbouring ones.

Source: Imagery produced by the NASA Earth Observations team based on data provided by the MODIS Atmosphere Science Team, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Image of transboundary air pollution dispersion across the Indo-Gangetic Plains

The Indo-Gangetic Plains is just one part of the world where transboundary pollution can be found but highlights the need for understanding and cooperation at the international, national and sub-national level, on this International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies themed #TogetherForCleanAir. This article summarises the evolution of national and transboundary air pollution governance frameworks across key geographies. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds WHO guideline limits (daily limit is 15, annual is 5 microgram/m3) containing high levels of pollutants. While the science is very clear that annual outdoor PM2.5 levels even lower than 5 microgram/m3 (µg/m3) are harmful to the human body, various countries define their own ambient air quality standards, which are in almost all cases more relaxed than the WHO guidelines. India and Bhutan have their national ambient air quality standard annual PM2.5 levels set at 40 µg/m3, while neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh define it as 15 µg/m3. Australia, Brazil, Bolivia and Norway have set their annual outdoor PM2.5 standard at 8-10 µg/m3, which meets the WHO interim target 4, but are still far from WHO guideline levels of 5 µg/m3. The CREA article, ‘In dire need of an update: World Health Organization air pollution guidelines’, summarises the present national ambient air quality standards and health impacts faced by countries globally due to hazardous air pollution levels.

Air pollution isn’t a new word or phenomenon, different geographies have acknowledged air pollution as a severe problem and started acting decisively on it through legislation at different times. While the United States and Europe enacted legislation before the 1970s, India and China, two geographies with maximum populations exposed to hazardous air pollution levels, enacted laws to regulate air pollution in the 1980s. Air pollution has been reported as a deadly problem as far back as the 1800s in London. The London Smog of December 1952 arising from coal burning is widely known and led to a series of laws enacted to avoid repetition of such situations, i.e., the Clean Air Act of 1956 and 1968 passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Similarly, 75 years back in October 1948, Donora, Pennsylvania, in the United States, experienced a lethal haze. Within five days, half of the town’s population experienced severe respiratory or cardiovascular problems, mainly caused by pollution from steel and zinc smelter facilities. The widespread publicity of the Donora haze ultimately led to amendments to the Clean Air Act in the United States in 1970 and establishing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQSs). India enacted its Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in 1981 and established India’s first ambient air quality standards in 1982, which were revised in 1994 and 2009. China introduced the ambient air quality standards in 1982, followed by promulgation of the Air Pollution Control Act in 1987. The Chinese ambient air quality standards were amended in 1996, 2000, and the latest in 2016.

While air pollution had been seen as a local problem mostly adjoining the geographies with industrial fossil fuel combustion, with time, it became evident that air pollution isn’t bound by administrative boundaries of cities, provinces and countries but travels a long distance, impacting air quality thousands of kilometres away from the source. Understanding the transboundary nature of air pollution, the WHO’s  Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution in November 1979 defined transboundary air pollution as ‘the release, directly or indirectly due to human activity, of substances into the air which have adverse effects on human health or the environment in another country and for which the contribution of individual emission sources or groups of sources cannot be distinguished.’The transboundary nature of air pollution is very well documented across different regions globally, e.g. East Asia (China to the United States, South Korea, and Japan ); South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal), and Europe. While countries are trying to reduce indigenous air pollution by enacting regulations and setting up ambient air quality standards, policies on a regional scale have also been formulated over the past decades, which attempt to understand and reduce transboundary air pollution. A few of the transboundary air pollution governance frameworks are described below.

  • Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, 1979

One of the major efforts to understand and regulate the international transboundary impacts of air pollution was recognised in November 1979 when the ‘Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution’ (CLRTAP) was signed within the framework of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and subsequently entered into force in 1983. The convention has 51 parties as of now, which include the EU, USA, Russia etc., and the parties under the convention commit themselves to working together to limit, gradually prevent and reduce their discharges of air pollutants in order to combat the resulting transboundary pollution. The European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP) under CLRTAP plays a key role in keeping tabs on transboundary pollution by providing data and modelling tools.

  • North-East Asian Subregional Programme for Environmental Cooperation (NEASPEC) 

NEASPEC was established in 1993 by six member States, namely, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia, the Republic of Korea, and the Russian Federation, to promote environmental cooperation in the subregion as a follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in 1992. Air pollution has been one of the primary work areas of NEASPEC, starting with technical cooperation on mitigating air pollution from coal-fired power plants in North-East Asia since the mid-1990s. 

  • North-East Asia Clean Air Partnership (NEACAP) 

Recognizing the importance of the science-to-policy linkages and the need for a holistic approach to address challenges of air pollutant management, the North-East Asia Clean Air Partnership (NEACAP) was launched in 2018 as a voluntary platform to promote science-based, policy-oriented cooperation on air pollution. The geographic scope of NEACAP includes the territories of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation. Target pollutants of NEACAP include, but are not limited to, pollutants of national and subregional concern, namely particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, and other relevant pollutants, including sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), black carbon, ammonia (NH3) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A step-wise approach is applied when addressing the listed pollutants, as the completeness of relevant emission inventories and modelling capacities in member States may vary.

  • Malé Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and Its Likely Transboundary Effects for South Asia

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), together with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in 1998 drew attention to the possibility of the impacts of transboundary air pollution in South Asia and the initiative led to the adoption of the ‘Malé Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and Its Likely Transboundary Effects for South Asia’ (Malé Declaration). The Male Declaration has eight member countries in South Asia, i.e., Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with designated national focal points (national ministries) and national implementation agencies. The declaration states the need for countries to undertake studies and programmes on air pollution in each country to access and analyse the origin and causes, nature, extent and effects of local and regional air pollution.

  • Acid Deposition Monitoring Network in East Asia (EANET)

EANET was established in 2001 as an intergovernmental initiative to create a common understanding of the state of acid deposition problems in East Asia, provide useful inputs for decision-making at various levels, and promote cooperation among countries. In 2021, EANET expanded its scope to cover wider air pollution issues. The UN Environment Programme Asia Pacific is the Secretariat, and the Asia Center for Air Pollution Research (ACAP) located in Japan is the Network Center for EANET. At present, 13 countries in East Asia constitute the EANET, i.e., Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, R. of Korea, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. EANET’s undertakings include monitoring and reporting of pollution levels; assessments and research on emission inventories, modelling and human health; and exchange and transfer of information on clean air technologies.

  • Tripartite Policy Dialogue on Air Pollution 

Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting among Korea, China and Japan (TEMM) was created in 1999. At TEMM 15 in 2013, the three countries agreed to establish a policy dialogue on air pollution. In light of the importance of the issue of air pollution to the sustainable development of not only Japan, China and Korea, but Asia as a whole, the three countries agreed to promote cooperation to further utilise existing regional programmes and measures.

  • Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement

Under the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement signed by Canada and the United States in 1991 to address transboundary air pollution leading to acid rain, both countries agreed to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the primary precursors to acid rain, and to work together on acid rain-related scientific and technical cooperation. The Ozone Annex was added to the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement (December 2000) to address transboundary air pollution leading to high ambient levels of ground-level ozone, a major component of smog. The long-term goal of the Ozone Annex is the attainment of the ozone air quality standards in both countries. Where there are transboundary flows of pollution that create ozone, the Ozone Annex commits both countries to reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, the precursor pollutants to ground-level ozone

  • Asia Pacific Clean Air Partnership (APCAP)

In 2014, the “immediate and concrete measures to solve air pollution and its effects (1/7)” was included in the resolutions of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). Subsequently, the third UNEA resolution in 2017 included the “prevention and reduction of air pollution to improve global air quality (3/8).” This resolution demanded that the Executive Director of UNEP strengthen regional cooperation to solve air pollution, and the Asia Pacific Clean Air Partnership (APCAP) was formed to organise regional working communities through the UNEP regional offices. Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Republic of Korea have joined APCAP since its inception in 2015 with the objective to: 

  • play the role of a mechanism for better adjustment and cooperation on a regional clean air programme; 
  • provide a platform for creating and sharing knowledge about the regional air pollution initiatives, policies, and technologies; 
  • provide technical support for strengthening institutional competency and air quality management, and to support air quality assessments to identify solutions for clean air.

Given the existence of legislations, guidelines, policies and frameworks on national and international scales, it is evident that air pollution has long been recognised as a hazardous issue on national, multilateral and global scales. Regions with political will, clear mandate and determination to act on rising air pollution have shown significant progress in tackling national as well as transboundary air pollution, i.e., United States-Canada and East Asia are some positive examples of how transboundary approach and regional cooperation have been used to improve air quality, while regions like South Asia, with political challenges among the countries as well as being developing states  with high fossil fuel dependent economies, still struggle with hazardous air pollution levels despite having national and international air pollution regulation frameworks. 

The avoidance of premature death of millions of people across the globe, economic damage due to health care bills and welfare costs is possible by taking swift action on reducing air pollution levels. To start an efficient journey towards breathable air and moving #TogetherForCleanAir, countries across the globe and, more importantly, in polluted geographies, urgently need to come together and:

  • monitor and publish air quality data
  • update their ambient air quality standards to be more aligned with WHO air pollution guidelines by setting interim targets to achieve interim targets under the guidelines.
  • shift to airshed-based air pollution regulations and governance informed by emission loads and inventories. Airsheds can encompass regions spread over smaller areas covering few districts to regions spread across multiple provinces and countries at times. 
  • effectively implement the national, multilateral and international frameworks to reduce air pollution levels by bringing synergies among such frameworks and regulations for efficient change.
  • share research, technologies, resources and finances to reduce the global air pollution problem.