Approximately 92% of Asia-Pacific’s population is exposed to levels of air pollution that violate the human right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Air pollution also has negative implications for economies across the region, including loss of potential economic output (3.3% of global GDP, 2018), reduced productivity among workers and increased health care costs.2 Moreover, businesses located in countries with high levels of air pollution may face restricted access to capital markets. Businesses may also find it difficult to recruit from a global talent pool, which has grown increasingly mobile, health-conscious and environmentally aware.
Given the extent and criticality of the issue, research is urgently required into the root causes of air pollution and potential solutions. Among other prescriptions, this report concludes that governments must address clean air as a priority policy objective, rooted in the State’s duty to protect human rights. In this context, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) offer a useful framework to delineate the State’s responsibility to protect the right to clean air and provide access to remedy when abuses have occurred.3
Asia in Focus: Clean Air and the Business and Human Rights Agenda begins by examining the extent of the air pollution challenge in the region. Following this, the report highlights the major sources of air pollution in Asia and explores the cost implications for the region’s economies and people. The report then outlines challenges to formulating air pollution policy and charts mitigation measures already in place. The report concludes by exploring the link between air pollution and human rights, and demonstrating how international human rights instruments enable a rights-based approach to addressing environmental violations. Importantly, the report outlines how the three-pillared framework of the UNGPs might be applied to effectively overcome the air pollution challenge.
The problem of air pollution is particularly severe in the rapidly growing urban centres of Asia. Mounting scientific evidence has brought the magnitude of the air pollution problem into focus along with the long-term economic and health consequences of prolonged exposure to unhealthy air. Asia is disproportionately affected, with South and East Asia home to 49 of the 50 most polluted cities worldwide.4
Vulnerable groups disproportionately bear the costs of air pollution. The global economic and public health cost of air pollutants is estimated to be US$2.9trn annually or 3.3% of global GDP (2018).5 However, the impacts of air pollution are unevenly distributed. This holds true for both low-income and high-income countries. Informal economy workers, Indigenous Peoples, women and low-income families are exposed to far greater levels of pollutants, than other groups.
The health impacts of air pollution put future generations at risk. Air pollution can have significant consequences for maternal and neonatal health, adversely affecting fertility, increasing the risk of preterm births and leading to a higher incidence of infant and maternal mortality, birth defects and breast cancer. Falling birth rates could lead to a reduction in the labour force in the coming years, with knock-on effects for future economic growth.
Health impacts of air pollution on the economy. Labour productivity can be adversely affected by air pollution as rising incidences of air pollution-related illnesses lead to increased absenteeism. Poor air quality has proven impacts too, on agricultural production. Consumer-facing businesses report substantially less revenue as customers stay indoors when air quality is poor. The most sought-after workers tend to shun cities and countries where air pollution is high.
The lack of uniform regulatory frameworks and standardised data contributes to the challenge of addressing air pollution in Asia. The problem of inconsistency in regulatory frameworks among Asian countries is a key obstacle to collaboration in the region. Additionally, the lack of standardised data makes monitoring air pollution more complex and expensive.
Measures to control air pollution in Asia, though underway, still have more to achieve. Regulatory interventions are showing promise, such as government-mandated monitoring of air quality and emissions standards, and the introduction of more stringent enforcement mechanisms. Positive results are found when businesses align operations with industry best practices and increase awareness of environment-friendly policies among members of the general public and local business communities.
In Asia, 82% of total urban ambient air pollution resulting from PM2.5 originates from man-made sources such as fossil fuel burning (for electricity generation and transport fuels), agricultural burning, waste burning and industrial operations.
What are the major sources of air pollution in Asia? What can the State and business community do to limit air pollution? Find out in this video.