Getting from (PM)2.5 to Zero: Towards Solutions Part 2
Since August, Circular Design Lab (CDL) and Thailand Clean Air Network(Thai CAN) have been organizing “From PM2.5 to Zero” Digital Roadshow to share knowledge about air pollution problems — and their potential solutions — in Thailand. Throughout the past 3 months, we have clearly seen the complexity and expansive impact of this invisible enemy especially following our previous webinar on October 7 about the “gaps that remain” in sustainably tackling the problem (read more here).
As we enter the drier months of the year here in Thailand, poor air quality is already on the rise. Toxic air pollution prematurely kills 7–9 million people globally each year, but it is a classic public goods problem: because no one entity has jurisdiction over the air we breathe, it is hard to quantify air pollution, attribute pollution to polluters, and take effective action to reduce and eliminate smog.
This year, the Circular Design Lab and the Thailand Clean Air Network have led a series of conversations centered around defining the air pollution problem in Thailand, exploring the gaps and barriers to taking action, and proposing solutions. The latest in this series brought together international experts to share emerging and proven solutions to the air pollution crisis.
This session, moderated by Circular Design Lab’s Laura M. Hammett and Courtney Savie Lawrence, featured global perspectives from the World Resources Institute (WRI) and International Finance Corporation (IFC) as well as regional voices of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and local vision from research underway in Thailand via the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
Starting off the discussion, Jessica Seddon — Global Lead for Air Quality at WRI — emphasized the importance of understanding where we are headed in terms of system change as we start to think about solutions to the air pollution crisis. “The question here is ‘what is the deeper fundamental issue at hand’ and why are we not able to tackle it with the tools we already have, even though we have been working on it for decades?” Offering suggestions for how to start to frame solutions in such an environment of uncertainty and complexity, Jessica proposed 2 solutions sets; one is to move away from simply monitoring air quality to scientifically attributing pollution to specific sources using e.g. emission inventory, regional and global modeling, and satellite analysis and tracing. Pollution attribution can help frame the problems more specifically and can be used for the second solution set — to build foundation for new collaboration and institutional innovations, across geographies, supply chains, and sectors.
Two prime examples offered by Jessica that show the two solution sets in action include (1) WRI’s collaboration with NASA to combine local air quality data with NASA’s Goddard Earth Observing System Composition Forecast (GEOS-CF) model to develop customized products for cities and communities to combat air pollution, and (2) the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) championed by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) that combines science and policy to help signatory States collaboratively reduce their emissions.
“We need to get to specific, sustainable agendas to move more of what we know into more of what we do; and sustain it.”- Jessica Seddon, WRI
One specific challenge that cities and states are faced with when trying to tackle air pollution and emissions is that of how to finance the transformative change to energy, transportation, industrial, agricultural, and other systems necessary. The IFC’s Steven Baillie and Max Klotz shared the idea of the Breathe Better Bond, one model under development that could help cities raise capital specifically for those projects that help move the needle on air pollution. This also helps cities meet their carbon emissions reduction goals, while improving air quality and health in the city. However, in order to capitalize a bond, the right market for investment has to be there, as well as a certain baseline of data on which to measure the air quality improvement results. This means that this kind of investment modality may not be viable for cities that are not able to raise debt (don’t have a strong credit rating) or don’t yet have the air quality monitoring information in place to be able to accurately track results.
“[Air quality] monitoring is really just the start. The bigger piece is source apportion and emission inventory, which is the most important part when designing and identifying projects that will be most impactful both in terms of financial and air pollution reduction.”- Max Klotz, IFC
Both the briefings from WRI and IFC representatives make a strong appeal for technological advancement in air pollution research, especially to better understand the sources and the behaviors of these toxic haze in order to combat them more effectively. One such organization that is working in the technical knowledge area within the Southeast Asia region is CREA, with Isabella Suarez, the organization’s analyst, joining the webinar to share the work being done for the region. For CREA, sustainable solutions to air pollution can be divided into 3 major buckets: (1) strong policies to protect clean air, (2) good understanding of the sources of pollution and the people breathing them, and (3) transparent monitoring and tracking of real-time air quality. Through CREA’s extensive research work into the solutions, it is clear that addressing air pollution requires a systems change from enacting laws such as the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution in the short term to transitioning to clean and renewable energy sources as well as designing people-centered cities and infrastructure in the long term.
Fortunately for Southeast Asia, there have been recent positive indicators that the region is starting to transition away from fossil fuels with the burgeoning notice of their economic and health costs by policy-makers, e.g. enactment of new power development plans in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines that will reduce the share of coal in the energy mix. The trend can only be continued with strong policy drive and stringent emission standards though, and the latter are still largely missing in Southeast Asia with relatively weaker fuel standards.
Another key piece is the enforcement of policies and standards which, from CREA’s experience working with stakeholders at all levels, requires data transparency and exact understanding of the sources of pollution; and this is where CREA’s research expertise comes in. From looking at pollution data and supporting local projects, CREA is working to bridge the efforts for clean air between bottom-up movements and top-down policy-making.
“There is a lot of interest [on the issue of air pollution] on the ground. The problem is there is no common language to talk about solutions whether at the local or national level. The [technical information] translation work takes a lot of time and building the capacity from the ground up and from the top down needs to happen simultaneously…We provide responsive research, evidence and data, and bridge the technical understanding with what it means for stakeholders on the ground by translating the research in a way that connects with the people.”- Isabella Suarez, CREA
From the global perspectives provided by Jessica of WRI and Steve and Max of IFC, and the regional perspective provided by Isabella of CREA, the conversation turned local with Diane Archer of SEI (Asia Center) sharing about the ongoing efforts in Thailand. SEI is a policy research institute focusing on achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with offices carrying out local projects around the world. For Thailand, Diane and SEI are planning some notable experimental projects for better insights into the area of air pollution.
The first is a project to assess the impact of urban ecology on people’s well-being and stress levels. Through an experiment conducted in Udon Thani — a city in northeastern Thailand — a linkage was found between stress-inducing urban environments such as noise and the people’s stress level reflected in their heart rates. The experiment paved the way for expansion to more specifically look at the relationship between air quality and stress levels through another ongoing experiment this year.
One such project is a collaboration between SEI and Chulalongkorn University to look at the varying exposures to air pollution among people in Bangkok and its economic consequences. The project — soon to begin — aims to bring to light the unequal risks city-dwellers in Bangkok face when it comes to air pollution based on their localities and professions, which may highlight the underlying inequality issues that permeate beyond just the income levels but rather pose very real health impacts on the risk-prone people.
Another very interesting project by SEI that had just started in October (2020), funded by IDRC and in collaboration with ILO, is one that aims to look at the indirect impacts of government policies to curb air pollution — such as industrial emission limits and crop burning regulations — and how those impacts are borne unequally by the people at the grassroots level. These regulations, when implemented without integration with other sectors such as the labor market, can create unintended consequences that may even be gendered or harmful to certain groups of the population such as vulnerable mothers and migrant workers. Knowing that the different government ministries tend not to collaborate closely with one another, Diane hopes that this project will be a good opportunity to encourage better cross-sector integration to avoid unintended consequences of well-meaning policies.
“For an employer, a healthy workforce is a productive workforce; but if they can also understand how different members of their workforce experience air pollution differently, both directly and indirectly, then that might help to identify measures than can help better.”- Diane Archer, SEI
For Thai citizens, you can join the call for #Right2CleanAir and pushes for the Draft Act on Regulating the Integrated Management of Clean Air for Health to be considered by the parliament by registering your support here.
For Non-Thais, you can support the cause by spreading the word among your Thai (and non-Thai) peers to help the movement gain momentum! Also, Thailand is not the only country struggling with air pollution so there are opportunities to share lessons and tools across borders in the region and beyond.
Next Up: Join us in Bangkok for a Clean Air Day — one where you can join DIY Air Filter Workshops, Talks, Films and more. All details here!
More here — www.right2cleanair.com.