Air pollution is among the most urgent challenges faced by Asia today. There is mounting evidence of health impacts in the shape of rising incidence of respiratory illnesses and air pollution-related mortality. Urban centres are witnessing a steady increase in the number of residents leaving due to hazardous levels of air pollution. The scale and seriousness of the problem has clearly come to a tipping point.
There is mounting evidence of health impacts in the shape of rising incidence of respiratory illnesses and air pollution-related mortality. Urban centres are witnessing a steady increase in the number of residents leaving due to hazardous levels of air pollution. The scale and seriousness of the problem has clearly come to a tipping point.
The debilitating impact of air pollution has huge economic and social implications. The public health and economic costs from air pollution can cause losses of up to 3.3% of global GDP, accounting for the loss of income, productivity, investment, urban competitiveness and biodiversity in a country.150 Polluted air is a silent killer that is affecting the well-being and quality of life of future generations as well through its impact on maternal and neonatal health. However, the impacts and costs of air pollution are not borne equally. Vulnerable groups such as women, informal economy workers, low-income families and Indigenous Peoples experience much greater harm, especially when they lack the adequate platforms and political representation to voice their concerns or access remedy.
The public health and economic costs from air pollution can cause losses of up to 3.3% of global GDP, accounting for the loss of income, productivity, investment, urban competitiveness and biodiversity in a country.
The UN resolution HRC/RES/48/13: 'The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment' is a major step in the recognition of clean air as a basic human right. Despite the legally non-binding status, the resolution is expected to compel States and businesses to take action towards improving air quality. By recognising clean air as a basic human right, the resolution brings the issue of air pollution directly within the remit of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However, a key challenge remains: industries directly contributing to poor air quality are also some of the largest drivers of economic growth in the region. Getting these industries to take concrete steps towards improving air quality requires dedicated legislative action from governments and a commitment from industry to embrace long-term thinking.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide a useful framework for States and businesses to begin taking steps to improve air quality. The three pillars of the framework—the State duty to protect, the corporate responsibility to respect, and the responsibility of both State and business to provide access to remedy—provide practical recommendations for governments and business to play their role in achieving the collective objective of improvement in air quality. To carry out its duty to protect, the State must mandate air quality standards, while monitoring compliance by both private and State enterprises. The State should also ensure policy coherence among ministries, develop and update appropriate legislation and regulations, and leverage its role as a market actor to motivate private sector enterprises. The State must also ensure that affected populations have adequate access to remedy in the form of legal recourse.
Businesses should take measures to mitigate air pollution caused as a direct or indirect result of their operations. Business enterprises should demonstrate commitments toward reducing air pollution through policy statements, implementing due diligence processes, detailed stakeholder consultations and complying with local air quality standards. Businesses should also invest in research and development to identify new technologies and processes that could potentially reduce their direct and indirect contributions to air pollution.
Successes in achieving improved air quality in Asia is evidence that improving air quality is not an unattainable goal. Improving air quality requires dedicated and coordinated action from all stakeholders, including the government and the private sector. With the necessary political will and committed action from all stakeholders, significant improvements in air quality can be achieved.
Asia in focus: Clean Air and the Business and Human Rights Agenda is a report written by Economist Impact in consultation and with support from UNDP. The findings are based on an extensive literature review, an expert interview programme and data analysis conducted by Economist Impact between January and March 2022.
The report was written by a team of researchers including Shreyansh Jain, Divya Sharma Nag and Minakshi Barman. Levi Heo, Sachin Javale and Cheryl Fuerte were responsible for the report’s design layout. The report was copyedited by Jan Copeman.
Our thanks are due to the following people for their time and insights:
Ahmad Rafay Alam – Environmental Lawyer and Activist
Grita Anindarini – Deputy Director, Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law
Matthew Baird – Director of Asian Research Institute for Environmental Law and Doctoral Candidate, University of Southern Queensland
Victor Bernard – Programme Officer (Human Rights and the Environment)
Prarthana Borah – Director, CDP India
Dr David Boyd – United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Associate Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia
Paulo Burro – Co-Convenor, Bayanihan sa Daan
Joan Carling – Executive Director, Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI)
Professor Surya Deva, Member – UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights
Dr Michael Greenstone – Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics; Director, Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC); Director, Becker Friedman Institute, University of Chicago
Roger Joseph (Rocky) Guzman – Deputy Director, Asian Research Institute for Environmental Law
Allan Meso – Environmental Lawyer
Polash Mukerjee – Lead, Air Pollution and Climate Resilience, Natural Resources Defence Council, India
Brynn O' Brien – Executive Director of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR)
Kevin Punzalan – former Senior Policy Officer, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Philippines. Currently an International Business Developer for VDE Renewables GmbH.
William Schulte – Mekong Region Policy and Legal Advisor, EarthRights International
Romchat Wachirarattanakornkul – National Human Rights Officer on Climate Change and the Environment, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) Regional Office for South-East Asia.
Christine Wellington-Moore – SDG Integration Advisor, UNDP
Hemantha Withanage – Senior Advisor, Centre for Environmental Justice (Sri Lanka)
Thailand Clean Air Network
We would also like to extend our gratitude to Sean Lees, Anna Keller, Belinda Hlatshwayo, Jiahuan Yuan and other UNDP staff for the technical support provided during the project.
Access the footnote sources, appendix information and charts by downloading the full PDF report
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