Asia in Focus:

Clean Air and
the business
and human
rights agenda

Asia in Focus:

Clean Air and
the business
and human
rights agenda

air pollution icon State of air pollution in Asia

The role of industry

Some of the leading causes of air pollution in Asia are transport emissions, industrial operations, coal-powered energy production and crop burning. Transboundary air pollution is also a critical issue in South-East Asia, often caused by forest fires linked to the clearing of forests to make way for cash crop plantations, such as palm oil and rubber.

This section discusses the role of key contributing business sectors to air pollution in Asia.

Industrial operations

Industries such as iron and steel plants, cement factories, glass production and brick kilns release large amounts of particulate matter, emissions that are among the most dangerous forms of pollutants. Brick kilns burn low-grade coal in the process of manufacturing bricks, making brick kilns an important source of particulate matter emissions. In certain South Asian cities, brick kilns account for almost 91% of total particulate matter emissions.51 Another major contributor to air pollution in Asia is cement production, which involves the use of minerals such as limestone, bauxite or gypsum. The burning of these substances emits large volumes of carbon dioxide and other gases, including nitrous oxide.52 The manufacturing processes of many consumer goods also emit a significant volume of pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. In the absence of effective post-combustion control measures, emissions can lead to persistently high levels of air pollution in the regions in which these manufacturers operate.

Industries image Industries image


The transport sector has been widely recognised as a key source of air pollution53 as it is a major consumer of liquid fossil fuels, such as petroleum, diesel and aviation fuel. Vehicular emissions from the burning of these fuels contain particulate matter and other polluting gases that cause a range of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The growth in private vehicle ownership across Asia—a sign of growing economic prosperity and rising urbanisation—has led to an increase in emissions from the transport sector. Between 2005 and 2015, the car ownership rate increased to 87% in Asia, which is nearly three times the global average of 27%.54 Over the same period, PM2.5 emissions from road transport activity rose significantly in some Asian countries: 43% in Bangladesh, 22% in China, 94% in India, 47% in Indonesia, and 27% in Vietnam.55


Between 2005 and 2015, the car ownership rate increased to 87% in Asia, which is nearly three times the global average of 27%.

Fossil-fuel-based electricity generation

Another significant contributor to air pollution is the power generation industry. The combustion of coal, oil and natural gas, which is used to generate electricity, releases by-products such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.56 Asia accounts for 75% of the world’s coal demand,57 much of which is used to generate electricity for the energy-intensive manufacturing processes of the key industries described above. In the absence of large-scale, affordable, clean (or renewable) energy sources, much of this electricity demand is met by coal-fired thermal power plants.

Air pollution statistics

Select a country/region

sri lanka




WHO limit = 5 µg/m3

(WHO 2021 air quality guideline for annual average PM2.5 exposure)




WHO limit = 5 µg/m3

(WHO 2021 air quality guideline for annual average PM2.5 exposure)

Source: Health Effects Institute (2020), State of Global Air 2020. Special Report.58,59

Disclaimer: The designations employed and the presentation of material on this nap do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Secretariat of the United Nations or UNDP concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries


Costs of air pollution

Cost to the economy

Research published by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) reported the total economic and health costs of air pollution from fossil fuels (measured in work absences, years of life lost and premature deaths) to be in the region of 3.3% of global GDP, or US$2.9trn, in 2018.60

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the economic burden resulting from air pollution—loss of productive labour and increased healthcare and welfare costs—could result in a decline in global output of US$330 per capita and a rise in annual healthcare costs to US$176bn.61

Global estimated costs of air pollution from fossil fuels, 2018

Pollutant Impact Central Estimate62

Nitrous Oxide

Total cost to economy

US$351 billion




Total cost to economy

US$351 billion




Total cost to economy




Work absences (days)


Global cost of pollutants

Total cost to economy

US$2.9 trillion



Source: Greenpeace Southeast Asia (2020), Toxic air: The price of fossil fuels.63

Chart 6: Welfare losses* due to air pollution, Asian countries 201864

Source: Greenpeace Southeast Asia (2020), Toxic air: The price of fossil fuels.63
*Welfare losses refer to the harm incurred to societal well-being and quality of life

For Asia, reducing fossil fuel consumption would have many benefits, including reducing carbon emissions by 18-25%, and air pollution deaths by around 55-60%. The resulting welfare gains are also significant, in the range of 5-7% of regional GDP.66

Public health costs of air pollution

Air pollution harms cognitive function from prenatal development through childhood and young adulthood to old age.67 It is known to cause dementia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research shows that prolonged exposure to excess amounts of PM2.5 increases the risk of dementia by 92%.68

Air pollution harms cognitive function from prenatal development through childhood and young adulthood to old age.

Children are at particularly high risk from the debilitating effects of air pollution due to lower immunity. Globally, 93% of children are exposed to air pollution levels higher than WHO-prescribed levels.69 Children are also at higher risk from household air pollution in communities that lack access to clean cooking fuel, as being indoors with their mothers while they are cooking exposes them to greater risk from particulate matter.

Air pollution also leads to an increased burden of diseases and premature mortality. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that long-term exposure to air pollution causes ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, stroke and type-2 diabetes. These conditions lead to many premature deaths and significantly shorten a person’s healthy and economically productive lifespan. WHO statistics reveal that air pollution leads to nearly seven million deaths globally each year,70 and many more premature deaths. Exposure to air pollution among young children can cause a range of neonatal diseases that can impair brain development and also puts them at greater risk of chronic diseases later in life.71 Some studies show an increase in lung cancer in Southeast Asia, especially in regions with high levels of air pollution.72

Source: Health Effects Institute (2020), State of Global Air 2020. Special Report.73

Researchers from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago have developed a tool that quantifies the health impact of particulate matter pollution on life expectancy in various countries. The index measures the gains in life expectancy if countries reduced their PM2.5 concentration levels to WHO guidelines (2005). Results from this tool reveal that reducing PM2.5 concentrations in select Asian countries might lead to gains of up to 6.33 years of life expectancy.

Source: Energy Policy Institute, University of Chicago (2018), The Air Quality Life Index.74

Source: Energy Policy Institute, University of Chicago (2018), The Air Quality Life Index.75

Economic costs of air pollution

roadways transport pollution image

Income and productivity loss: Air pollution impacts total income and productivity mainly through two channels: (a) increased absenteeism among adults, either due to illness or to care for sick family members, and (b) a decline in productivity while on the job, as air pollution impairs cognitive function. A recent study by Dalberg Group, consultancy found that in 2019, India’s economy lost nearly 1.3 billion working days and US$6bn in business revenue, attributable to high levels of air-pollution-driven absenteeism.76 The same study also found that consumer-facing businesses earned US$22bn less as consumers stayed indoors due to high levels of air pollution. The most affected sectors were clothing stores and restaurants.77 In another study on Chinese cities, it was found that halving the level of air pollution could lead to a 12% increase in incomes in Beijing.78

Air pollution impacts total income and productivity mainly through two channels: (a) increased absenteeism among adults, either due to illness or to care for sick family members, and (b) a decline in productivity while on the job, as air pollution impairs cognitive function.

burn down chart

Output loss: Agricultural output and the quality of soybeans, wheat, rice, maize and barley are affected by pollutants such as ground-level ozone.79 Pollutants stick to plant surfaces and reduce the amount of sunlight reaching crops, which stunts their growth. A recent study on the impacts of ozone pollution on agriculture in East Asia concluded that surface-level ozone pollution caused annual production losses worth US$63bn in China, Japan and South Korea, resulting from reduced yields of three major crops—rice, wheat and maize.80 Furthermore, crop losses from ozone pollution can have significant implications for food security, leading to a rise in food prices with disproportionate impacts on women-led households.81 This causes women to bear a larger burden of air-pollution-driven food insecurity.

loss of investment image

Loss of investment: Investors are increasingly facing pressure from regulators, clients and the public to divest from companies involved in activities that contribute to environmental pollution and climate change. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations are also being applied in the finance industry, where they are increasingly viewed as an essential part of investment strategies. Several asset managers have announced their intention to withdraw investments from companies that fail to take adequate actions to address climate risks—including those linked to air pollution—arising from their operations.82 This trend is also reflected in the financial performance of climate-conscious investments. In a recent survey of institutional investors carried out by Economist Impact, 74% of survey respondents said that investments that took ESG factors into account performed better financially than equivalent traditional investments in the three years prior to 2020.83

High-skilled workers are much more likely to migrate over time to cities with less pollution than low-skilled workers.

Loss of urban competitiveness image

Loss of urban competitiveness: Air pollution significantly impacts the perception of a city’s desirability as a place to live and raise a family. In recent years, a growing body of evidence suggests that the worsening air quality in many Asian cities is driving an outflow of workers from metropolitan areas to cities with cleaner air.84 Reportedly, highly educated workers are shunning capitals like Delhi, which experiences severe air pollution, for other cities such as Bengaluru, Pune and Hyderabad.85 A study on skilled workers in China revealed similar findings: high-skilled workers are much more likely to migrate over time to cities with less pollution than low-skilled workers.86

Biodiversity icon

Biodiversity loss: The earth’s biodiversity provides a range of essential goods and services that support human needs including economic opportunities, such as tourism and leisure activities.87 Pollutants emanating from various sources (industrial manufacturing, transport, power generation, etc.) can have adverse impacts on ecosystems, leading to biodiversity loss.88

Impact of air pollution on vulnerable groups

worker icon

Informal economy workers (occupational exposure to pollutants): According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), nearly 1.3 billion people are employed in the informal economy in Asia-Pacific, or nearly 70% of Asia-Pacific’s employed population.89 In urban areas, informal economy workers include street-side food vendors, hawkers and peddlers, rickshaw drivers and tuk-tuk drivers. Their workplaces include temporary shelters, mobile street vehicles placed on busy street corners, roadsides and crowded city centres. By the nature of their work, these informal economy workers are constantly exposed to pollutants from exhaust gases emanating from city traffic. They lack access to social protections such as health benefits and are often living below the poverty line or suffering from multidimensional poverty.90

"In terms of the distribution, air pollution in many parts of the world, including in Asia, is not evenly distributed across cities and the landscape. We know from a huge body of scientific research that air pollution is disproportionately affecting people living in poverty and those who are marginalised or in disadvantaged groups."

- 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

patients icon

Co-morbidity patients: Research from the WHO has increasingly shown that exposure to air pollution at any level can exacerbate existing conditions and can lead to premature death for patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases, cancer and other respiratory infections.91 Research has also identified air pollution to be a cofactor that led to an increase in mortality from covid-19.92

Women icon

Women: Women’s exposure to air pollution can have significant consequences on maternal and neonatal health, leading to a higher incidence of infant and maternal mortality, birth defects and breast cancer. This has a direct impact on the health of future generations (and the labour force). The public health costs of adverse birth outcomes and resulting disabilities can be significant. Maternal exposure to ambient particulate matter (PM2.5) has been found to have a link with a higher incidence of preterm births. In 2010, 2.7 million births—18% (mid-point) of the total preterm births globally—were associated with maternal exposure to PM2.5.93

“It should also be understood that when waste incineration is common, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as dioxins and furans, and the toxic additives found in plastics (e.g. BPA, phthalates, styrene etc.), all convert into toxins that disproportionately affect female fecundity, cancers and other diseases that increase morbidity, as well as birth outcomes, child development and overall health.”

- Christine Wellington Moore, SDG Integration Advisor, UNDP

Indigenous Peoples icon

Indigenous Peoples: The impacts of air pollution are unevenly distributed, with people from low- and middle-income countries bearing a heavier burden compared with those living in high-income countries. However, even within lower-income countries, certain population groups, like Indigenous Peoples, bear a disproportionate burden. Asia is home to two-thirds of the world’s Indigenous Peoples92 who tie their identities closely to the land and the natural resources on which they depend for their survival and livelihoods.95 Indigenous Peoples are more likely to reside in areas that are rich in natural resources such as minerals, coal, oil and gas. These resources are, in turn, targeted for extraction, which can involve the burning of forests, leaving Indigenous Peoples displaced and subject to high levels of air pollution. Given their health vulnerability—life expectancy among Indigenous Peoples is up to 20 years lower than that of non-indigenous people worldwide96—Indigenous Peoples are also at a higher risk of death from air pollution-related illnesses. Indigenous Peoples often lack access to formal healthcare systems, compounding the impact of air pollution on health and well-being.

"Indigenous Peoples get triply victimised. First, the infrastructure causing air pollution is built on lands that belong to them, as a result of which they lose their livelihoods. Second, they suffer from the debilitating health impacts of air pollution. Third, they are discriminated against in the access to affordable healthcare and adequate political representation, and thereby suffer from layers of harm."

- Joan Carling, Executive Director, Indigenous Peoples Rights International

Air pollution and poverty

Air pollution also has a disproportionate impact on low-income families across countries at each income level. Crowded cities and suburbs bustling with traffic and large-scale industrial operations are more likely to run on fossil fuels, which are a significant contributor to air pollution. According to IQAir’s latest World Air Quality Report, 2021, 97% of cities in low- and middle-income countries do not meet WHO-specified international air pollution guidelines for PM2.5.97 Of the seven million people who die annually from air pollution, 57% (four million people) are residents of the Asia-Pacific region.98 As stated above, the section of the population most exposed to harmful outdoor air pollution in urban areas is workers in the informal economy, such as street vendors, hawkers, daily wage workers and vehicle drivers.

Even in high-income economies, poorer neighbourhoods are often located near busy city highways or close to industrial areas. These locations have higher air pollution levels, increasing exposure to outdoor air pollution among disadvantaged and marginalised families.

“Vulnerable groups such as traffic policemen, taxi drivers and workers in the informal economy, such as street vendors and peddlers, have some of the highest exposure levels to air pollution caused by traffic. Despite their high risk, there is little research to quantify the impact on their health.”

- Prarthana Borah, Director, CDP India

The chart below illustrates how people living in low- and middle-income countries are more likely to be exposed to high levels of PM2.5 than people living in higher-income settings. Based on 2017 data, countries with the highest exposure levels to PM2.5 include Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Source: Brauer et al. (2017), Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, World Bank.99

Cost of inaction

Cost of inactionUnchecked air pollution would mean foggier skies and unbreathable air for present and future generations. This means worsening health outcomes coupled with an increase in global temperature, melting polar ice caps and a rise in mean sea levels. The practical implications of this include an increase in food insecurity, increased occurrence of natural disasters and economic instability, to name a few.

According to a recent OECD study, air pollution will shave off 1% of global GDP by 2060 as measured by lost labour productivity, growing health expenditure and falling agricultural crop yields. Additionally, the number of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution is projected to increase from approximately three million people in 2010 to 6-9 million annually by 2060, with annual global welfare costs associated with premature deaths from outdoor air pollution rising from US$3trn in 2015 to US$18-25trn in 2060.

However, while the threat is real, the biggest polluters in Asia are often among the most important industries in the region, as a share of GDP. This means that efforts to curb air pollution could slow economic growth in the near term. As such, governments must explore the trade-offs between the cost of inaction and the benefits gained through expanding GDP under current growth strategies. Slower short-term growth may be the cost of long-term or sustainable economic development, as governments invest in clean air technologies and while preparing citizens to undertake higher-skilled vocations in less-polluting industries.

Challenges in addressing air pollution

Lack of uniform regulatory frameworks on air pollution

Interviewees cited inconsistent regulatory frameworks as a key challenge in addressing air pollution, particularly around transboundary haze. For a region as vast and diverse as Asia, this may require sub-regional cooperation through networks such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Creating a common governance framework could also pool technical and financial resources and help to disseminate research and knowledge.

“In Asia, regional integration will play a key role in addressing the challenge of air pollution. Pooling resources (technical and financial) and establishing a common and well-coordinated regional governance framework, will help to achieve the desired results in mitigating air pollution.”

- Allan Meso, Environmental Lawyer

Lack of data standardisation

Data availability remains a key challenge in most Asian cities. There is a lack of standardised monitoring as the required equipment is often too expensive for developing countries and affordable options do not produce data to the specifications required. As a result, much of the data generated is not useful for measuring air pollution levels or driving policy action.100

Lack of compliance and clean authority

Environmental policies that lack proper implementation measures hinder compliance efforts throughout the Asia-Pacific region. To enforce compliance, environmental agencies require the de facto authority to regulate emission sources. However, this authority is not always provided. Though environmental agencies have seen their status rise across the Asia-Pacific region, they may struggle to advance their agenda when other more powerful agencies have conflicting objectives.

“Oftentimes, the institutions responsible for creating air pollution standards lack the powers to enforce these standards, which is a serious shortcoming.”

- Polash Mukerjee, Lead, Air Pollution and Climate Resilience, NRDC, India

Lack of financial resources

One of the main causes of compliance gaps is a lack of financial resources for pollution prevention and control. Although governments throughout Asia receive development funding to fight air pollution from a variety of sources, these funds are not distributed equitably.101 Even at the national level, there is often a lack of funding to meet the staffing needs of a pollution control office.







3 For the full list of UNGPs, see >


5 Greenpeace Southeast Asia and Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air







(2020 Report-English - page 4, section on Executive summary) More recent data is available from the same source but was released after the report went into production.

13 US AQI >100,300%20represents%20hazardous%20air%20quality
(2020 Report-English - page 4, section on Executive summary) More recent data is available from the same source but was released after the report went into production.

(2020 Report-English - page 4, section on Executive summary) More recent data is available from the same source but was released after the report went into production.










24 however,more%20healthy%20years%20of%20life





29 "Air quality guidelines (AQGs) released by the WHO provide recommendations on air quality levels as well as interim targets for six key air pollutants. These are based on the extensive scientific evidence currently available; the guidelines identify the levels of air quality necessary to protect public health worldwide. The AQGs also serve as a reference for assessing if, and by how much, the exposure of a population exceeds levels at which it might cause health concerns. They cover some of the most monitored pollutants critical for health, for which evidence on health effects from exposure has advanced the most in the past 15 years.”








37 United Nations, General Assembly, The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, A/76/L.75 (26 July 2022)


39 Interview insight - Dr Surya Deva
















55 Calculations by Economist Impact, based on data from (See Asia Transport Outlook Database – Excel file name > ‘National air pollution and health’, Sheet name> ‘APH-VAP-031’







62 Figures are estimates from modelling exercises. Scientific studies that use computer models do not give results with absolute certainty. Instead a range is provided (known as an 'interval'). The ‘confidence range’ is the range that is most likely to contain the true value. A 95% confidence interval means that with 95% probability, reality is somewhere inside the confidence interval, and a 5% chance it is outside the interval (either higher or lower than the range of numbers in the range). The value with the highest probability to be the true value is called the central estimate. It is somewhere inside the confidence interval. The bounds of the confidence interval are called the low and the high estimate.


64 These figures are central estimates. See footnote 60 for a definition of central estimates.


66 (Section on Highlights, page v)













79 Ground level ozone is a pollutant formed as a result of chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. These chemicals are emitted from industrial plants, electric utilities, vehicle exhaust etc.

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100 Interview insight from Prarthana Borah















































147 For the full list of UNGPs, see >



150 Garton, Kelly, Thow, Anne Marie & Swinburn, Boyd. (2020). International Trade and Investment Agreements as Barriers to Food Environment Regulation for Public Health Nutrition: A Realist Review. Journal of Health Policy and Management.

151 For the full list of UNGPs, see >




155 Not exhaustive