Air quality around the world is plummeting, according to the latest version of an annual report, issued at the Davos Summit over the weekend.
Produced by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks performance in key environmental areas on a per-country basis. It breaks down these issues into two broad policy areas: detection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems. It then ranks each nation based on their overall performance.
Air quality, affected by activities such as burning solid biomass on open stoves or pollution from power plants, can have a deleterious effect on human health, the report said, adding that just 16 per cent of countries met the target for household air quality.
Almost 1.8 billion people were exposed to poor air quality in 2011, defined as more than twice the World Health Organisation standard for clean air of 10 µg of particular matter per metre cubed. This was up from well under 1.25 billion people in 2000.
China and India were among the worst countries for air pollution, with populations there suffering the highest average exposure to particular matter in the world, added the document.
Angel Hsu, who co-authored the report, is postdoctoral associate and project manager of the Environmental Performance Measurement programme area at Yale. She highlighted a lack of global targets for air quality, contrasting them with clearly defined goals in other areas.
“Where you have global targets for reducing the proportion of the population that lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation, you can see measurable results,” she said. “But at the same time, you see some issues where global goals are poorly defined, and you don’t have clearly defined measurement targets. There is definitely an unevenness globally that we are seeing in these environmental indicators and trends.”
In general, wealthier nations had curbed their carbon dioxide emissions slightly, while emerging economies such as Brazil, with rapidly growing economies, have grown their carbon emissions dramatically over the past decade. Overall, the BRIC emerging economies performed worse than Europe and Asia. For example, South Africa, which the researchers consider as part of the BRIC grouping because of its economic profile, came 72nd in the overall environmental rankings, followed by Russia in 73rd. Brazil was ranked 77th and China was 118th. At 155th place, India languished at the bottom of the BRIC group, warned Hsu.
Mark Levy, adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia, warned that poor data was a challenge to gathering research for the EPI, and that researchers had to work around this hurdle when gathering air quality information and data on other indicators.
“There are a number of data systems that have been left to languish over the last 10-20 years – things that we built up throughout the 70s and 80s in our enthusiasm for the environmental consciousness that was growing then,” he said. “We have let them wither on the vine. The global air quality monitoring network is one example, where it has been virtually dismantled. There are a number of individual countries’ networks, but no global network to track air quality. The water network is even more stark.”
Due to a lack of accurate ground station data, the team for the first time created the air quality measure used in the EPI using satellite data in collaboration with Dalhousie University.
Hsu said investors should take note of the issues highlighted in the report, because they help to highlight risk areas, especially in emerging markets. For example, she argued that Brazil is poised to become very attractive for incoming investment, whereas India represents “a lot of risk”, in large part because of its poor environmental performance.
At the top of the rankings, Switzerland came in first place, while Australia and Singapore were newcomers to the top 10, although Hsu stressed that ranking mechanisms had changed thanks to different data gathering techniques year-on-year.
The report came as Chinese state media reported once again that Beijing plans to accelerate efforts to tackle worsening air pollution in the city.
With the city facing some of its worst air pollution in recent months, Xinhua reported that Beijing’s mayor Wang Anshun has set a new target to cut coal use by 2.6 million tonnes and invest 15 billion Yuan ($2.4bn) in improving air quality.
He also said that all coal-burning boilers within the city\’s fifth ring road will be banned and further steps will be taken to tackle the most polluting and inefficient vehicles.
Xinhua also reported that 8,347 heavily polluting companies have now been shut down in the northern Hebei province, as part of the government’s promised crackdown on carbon emissions and air pollution.
There is mounting evidence governments around the world are prepared to introduce robust new standards and legislation to tackle levels of air pollution that are so high they have contributed to social unrest. Increasingly such measures are having a direct impact on businesses, with governments showing a willingness to shut factories, restrict urban journeys, and even close airports to tackle air pollution and smog.