I typically associate the term ‘air pollution’ with China, famous for its smoggy skies and permanently masked civilians. According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted in 2014, however, 88% of the world is “exposed to PM10 or PM23 annual mean levels” that exceed Air Quality Guidelines put forth by WHO. Furthermore, if recent trends continue, those levels are set to increase by 6% over the next three years.

Hundreds of organizations all over the world — both governmental and NGOs — are tackling the issue of climate change, fighting to implement solutions to the huge problems the world is facing now because of past misdemeanors. But a major part of the dialogue surrounding this issue is whether or not developing countries can be held equally as responsible as developed countries and whether the two should be held to the same standards.

The ‘Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer’, an international legislative measure, was put into effect in response to environmental issues raised in Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, “designed to reduce the production and consumption of lone depleting substances in order to reduce their abundance in the atmosphere”. This measure has been effective in getting rid of dangerous pesticides and other substances that have harmful effects on the ozone layer. Its legislation also includes avenues for quick alterations to the Protocol in reaction to current scientific data.

However, the Montreal Protocol also attempted to account for the potentially unequal levels of harm on the economies of developing countries by allowing developing countries with consumption levels less than 0.3 kg per capita up to ten years before they were forced to comply with the restrictions. This seemed reasonable – except for the fact that 147 countries were labelled developing countries. In August 2014, the WHO published a study listing the countries suffering from the most air pollution: Pakistan, Qatar, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, Mongolia, UAE, India, and Bahrain. All ten of these countries were included on the developing countries list of the Montreal Protocol. In the 21st century, urban development is growing at triple the speed of urbanization during the Industrial Revolution, which means developing countries are causing three times the harm as developed countries caused previously in the same amount of time.

A “developing country” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a poor agricultural country that is seeking to become more advanced economically and socially”. However, it’s hard to see how a country can become more developed if its citizens are dealing with increasingly troubling health issues. The Blacksmith Institute, an international non-profit organization committed to solving pollution problems states: “Twenty percent of the total burden of disease in the developing world is due to environmental pollution.” Some problems, such as indoor air pollution, are more concentrated in impoverished communities. Impoverished citizens in developing countries burn biomass fuels in stoves that fill entire households with threatening fumes. Trash burning is another common practice in developing countries that lack landfills and other proper trash disposal methods; this contributes to 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

India recently created a National Air Quality Index, similar to the one I check every morning here in Shanghai, to “provide the common citizen one color, one number and one description so that he can understand what is the level of air pollution.” However, there are have been doubts raised regarding the accuracy of India’s measurements. These include the reliability of India’s tools for measuring data, which are rumored to not have been properly approved by U.S. standards (India has no standards of its own so it goes by the U.S.’s guidelines). There have also been accusations that companies only report averages, rather than real-time data, and concerns surrounding the effectiveness of the parts involved in the process of manual monitoring.

But there is hope: governments have begun to realize the urgency that this problem requires. In Iran the government has already been taking steps to provide clean fuel for vehicles in four cities; as a consequence, according to Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, air quality readings are already decreasing. Chaudry Sarwar, a governor in Pakistan said: “No priority was given to environment pollution in the past as our politicians and bureaucrats showed poor performance and that is why we are bearing the brunt of it. Some 50,000 people die every year in Pakistan and the country faces $370 million economic loss.”

However, the world clearly is not moving quickly enough. The European Union says it “will take two generations before people can breathe genuinely clean air”. Until then, perhaps we should bring our face masks with us when we study abroad.


This article was written by Allison Chesky. Send an email to features@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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