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Air pollution during COVID-19 in the Asia Pacific: What other solutions do we need after the pandemic?

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

The health risks posed by air pollution fully demonstrate its harmful impact to the environment in East Asia and the Asia Pacific. According to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, air pollution affects biodiversity, as 92 percent of Asia and the Pacific’s population, which amounts to around 4 billion people – are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant health risk. Meanwhile, 35 percent of global deaths occurred in East Asia and the Pacific, and about 33 percent in South Asia, all of which are attributable to air pollution. Strikingly, these are statistics that were reported from the community in 2015, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, restrictions were placed and many activities were suspended for a considerable period. During the last two years, the impact of lockdowns, quarantines, and remote working arrangements have managed to subside the movement of vehicles. Moreover, factories and many agricultural activities, both of which are significant contributors of carbon emissions, were suspended. These factors have led to improved air quality and slowed the process of climate change. 

Based on results observed for the Asian region regarding the decrease in air pollution, for instance in the northern cities of India, people who live in the Himalayas encountered snow-caps for the first time in decades. Likewise, the level of air pollution in Thailand has decreased owing to the citizens’ reduced utilisation of fuel gas on the road due to quarantine, generally less outdoor activities, and other preventive measures. These observations are lessons that highlight the major impact of our activities towards the environment, particularly the harmful effects of air pollution when preventive measures are not taken to address them. 

As such, it is imperative to pursue solutions to reduce air pollution and strive to ensure that it does not return to pre-pandemic levels. One possible solution to this crisis is to improve the existing science and technological capability to tackle the consequences of air pollution in the long term. For instance, as part of their efforts to tackle this issue, China built the world’s biggest air purifier that is able to produce more than 10 million cubic meters (353 million cubic feet) of clean air a day. Similarly, other innovations that utilise technology and science can greatly enhance the discovery of solutions in addressing environmental issues. Another solution may be to increase the use of solar energy instead, such as in electric vehicles that utilise solar as its main source of energy. 

Moreover, greater opportunities for the youth to increase awareness, knowledge, and understanding of these matters would also be valuable, such as partnering with organisations and other stakeholders to create projects, or convening forums and webinars where the youth would have the space to engage in meaningful activities and discussions regarding the environment.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries see significantly altered levels of air pollution and cleaner air than expected. This is a lesson that is necessary to learn and recognise, particularly the fact that our activities have a great impact towards the environment. It is important to mitigate these impacts, as well as maintaining efforts to ensure that our actions are sustainable and long-term oriented. 

This article was written by Te Siv Pheng, edited by Dhini Hardiyanti, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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