Jul. 17 2019

A Global Manual to Clean Urban Air

Built in the 17th century, the Taj Mahal is known worldwide for its stunning white marble façade. Yet, lately visitors to the monument gaze at an edifice that appears a shade of yellow when it’s not partially obscured by a blanket of smog—the result of severe air pollution. More than an aesthetic blemish, this pollution endangers the health of the 1.5 million people who live in Agra, India, home to the monument and among the world’s most polluted cities.

A new USAID report “LMIC Urban Air Pollution Solutions” provides practical steps for low and middle-income countries like India to address air pollution in their cities. The report was developed at an April workshop hosted by the Columbia Mailman School and the public health nonprofit Vital Strategies. Among its authors are Carlos Dora, visiting fellow in the School’s Global Health Justice and Governance program, and Darby Jack, associate professor in Environmental Health Sciences, who contributed to sections of the report on household fuels and monitoring.

In ongoing research in Ghana, Jack studies the health impacts of indoor cookstoves that use dirty fuels like wood, dung, and charcoal alongside cleaner technologies to reduce those impacts. As the USAID report notes, exposure to household air pollution from sources like traditional cookstoves is responsible for several million premature deaths in low and middle-income countries.

In India, household air pollution accounts for one-quarter of all ambient air pollution. Lately, however, India is among several low and middle-income countries that have aggressively promoted the use of liquid petroleum gas, a clean-burning cooking fuel alternative. (The Climate and Clean Air Coalition and Clean Cookstove Alliance facilitates learning between these nations, notably between India and Ghana on the distribution of liquid petroleum gas.) Today, three-quarters of urban populations in India are using this fuel, which is less harmful to human health. India has also committed to $1.4 billion toward electrifying its transportation sector, another major pollution source. Another effort supports the conversion of brick kilns to newer technology that reduces emissions.

Despite these efforts, much work remains in low and middle-income countries, particularly in South Asia, where cities in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan account for all but one of the top 25 most polluted cities in the world. According to the USAID report, additional actions could include policies to reduce trash burning and agricultural burning and the broad adoption of cleaner industrial technologies.

The report, whose audience is largely USAID in-country officers and others involved in on-the-ground problem-solving, also recommends supporting efforts to communicate the health risks of air pollution to key stakeholders and decisionmakers in the private and public sectors. While detailed information about air pollution in 50 cities in India is available through the Air Pollution Knowledge Assessment program on UrbanEmissions.info, the site publishes no data on the associated health impacts.

The report concludes by enumerating several indirect benefits, referred to as “co-benefits.” Not surprisingly, efforts to clean urban air also cut greenhouse gas emissions. Less obviously, transitioning from polluting biomass cooking fuels to clean household energy could also support forest preservation and gender equity.

“When households stop using biomass cooking fuels they no longer need to collect firewood, a task traditionally performed by women and girls,” says Jack. “This frees their time to pursue other activities like education and earning an income.”