Crop Burning and Air Pollution

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From the haze suffered by Singapore every year to the increasing air pollution in rural Asia and Africa and the recent spike of pollution in New Delhi, crop burning is the main culprit in the former and a key contributor in the latter.

Recent research in Europe has shown that smoke from wildfires, agricultural management and prescribed burns raises PM2.5 concentrations and other pollutants even in areas hundreds and thousands of miles from the physical fire. Researchers from Finland estimated that fires between 2005 and 2008 in Europe alone caused more than 2500 premature deaths. The main concern with these landscape fires is that they affect the immediate community but the air quality is detrimentally affected even thousands of miles away, depending on the atmospheric conditions.

This is exactly the case in Singapore, which is regularly affected by smoke haze due to regional forest fires,  from agricultural management in Indonesia. Made particularly bad due to the peat soils in the palm plantations which release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The haze is aggravated by poor precipitation and changes in wind direction. Similarly,  New Delhi sees spikes in air pollution due to a mix of crop burning from the adjacent region, excessive firecracker usage during Diwali celebration and specific atmospheric conditions.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), in 2000 it was estimated that 350 million hectares of land were affected by fire. Generally, most fires are caused by people for various agricultural and industrial purposes. FAO considers that greater awareness is needed on the economic and social consequences of crop burning and how to effectively manage it for both individuals and governments.

Although, according to FAO, the region most affected by fires is Africa, Asia has its fair share. The Association of South-East Asian countries (ASEAN) agreed in 2003 on a ‘zero burning policy’ for large scale agricultural businesses. The agreement, which was not signed by Indonesia, included sharing of ‘zero burning’ agricultural techniques and practices, management tools and other mechanisms to ensure ‘zero burning’ practices by large companies. However, the agreement acknowledged that small farmers could not cope with the costs associated with undertaking ‘zero burning’ practices. More than ten years from that agreement, we now know that little has been done for its successful implementation.


“The lack of government transparency makes it very hard for independent monitoring: concession maps are incomplete, data is lacking and we clearly have weak enforcement of laws,” said Greenpeace South East Asia forest campaigner Yuyun Andrade.

Indonesia has almost 15m hectares of peatland today, between 2000 and 2010 peatland declined by 41% in Sumatra, 90% of that deforestation is believed to have been carried out by palm-oil firms in a region with no monitoring system. Burning peat forests can have a very damaging effect, up to 200 times more than burning any other vegetation.

More precise data and more analysis of data is required to better understand how countries can effectively control crop burning in Asia.

Sources:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.125-A24.
http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/crop-burning-punjab-haryana-s-killer-fields-55960http://fires.globalforestwatch.org/about/http://fires.globalforestwatch.org/about/docs/Infographic-WRI-Forest-v1.0.pdfwww.fires.globalforestwatch.org
https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2016/nasas-sees-indias-punjab-states-agricultural-fireshttp://www.nber.org/papers/w22955http://www.fao.org/forestry/firemanagement/en/http://haze.asean.org/?wpfb_dl=163http://www.bbc.com/news/business-23026219http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21710844-weather-helping-little-despite-tough-talk-indonesias-government-struggling-stem
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Asia’s latest eclectic response to carbon emissions

Asia is at a crossroads between economic development and environmental protection on many fronts. Today we would like to highlight the two extreme positions that coexist in Asia, from a new South Korean president that has ensured the closure of coal fired plants to a plan to open 10 new such plants in Myanmar, already one of the most polluted countries in the world!

The Asian continent accounts for approximately 41% of carbon emissions, even if a per capita basis, carbon emissions are still low due to its large population size. What is evident from this is the potential for the current percentage of carbon emissions to increase dramatically with the expected economic development in the Region.

While some actions are being taken to clean the air…

Only in the last month we’ve seen news showing the disparity in carbon policies in the region. On one hand, China is rolling out the largest investment in solar and wind power in order to reduce coal powered electricity and has vowed to reduce the steel production capacity (a highly polluting industry) by 50 million tonnes. Furthermore, in March, China announced the closure of 103 coal power plants. This will have a major impact on improving regional air quality.

In this same line, Moon Jae-in – South Korea’s new president, started on the front foot fighting air pollution and ordered the shutdown of ten old coal power plants to address public protests. They will be temporarily shut down and by the end of his term, they are expected to be permanently shut down.

…other actions are being taken to increase power generation

On the other side, there are countries like Myanmar which have made public their plans to open 10 new coal-fired plants. The air quality in Myanmar is among the dirtiest in the world with six cities with higher counts of PM10 than Beijing! It is true that the country is currently only providing energy to less than 30% of the population and increased power is required to attract foreign investment, but it is also true that there are plans to build a hydroelectric dam to harness Irrawady’s river power, power which will be sold almost entirely to China (90%).

Another example of this situation is Bangladesh, which is constructing a power plant on the edge of the world’s largest mangrove: the Sundarbans. This project threatens the UNESCO-protected mangroves that are a barrier against storms and cyclones and has the potential to severely affect human health from air pollution, water pollution and storm emergencies. Campaigners have protested heavily to halt the construction.

Regional solutions?

Participants in the recent Belt&Road initiative have called on the need to implement in full the Paris Agreement. However, Asia faces enormous challenges and opportunities that would most benefit from increased regional co-operation in this initiative.

Increased knowledge about air pollution and its health consequences have sparked actions in the region to reduce the number of existing coal-fired plants. The more we talk about this, the more we can put pressure on governments to improve air quality in Asia.

Sources:
The Nation – Myanmar coal plant growth could kill 280,000

IOPscience – Regional carbon fluxes from land use and land cover change in Asia, 1980–2009
The Citizen – Bangladesh coal plant could cause 6,000 early deaths
Our World (by United Nations University – Carbon Governance in Asia: Bridging Scales and Disciplines
Greenpeace – Belt and Road participants call for full implementation of Paris Agreement

FINANCIAL TIMES – South Korea’s new president cracks down on air pollution
National Geographic – China’s Surprising Solutions to Clear Killer Air

Air’volution: cities improving air quality!

We know for sure that city dwellers are highly affected by worsening air quality across the world and the majority of deaths caused by air pollution occur in cities. In the past ten years, cities have been working together as part of the group C40Cities to find solutions to protect their citizens. The Mayors of the cities that are part of this group have come up with some innovative proposals to push an Air’Volution that stems pollution in the cities. The end of March saw the announcement of bold plans to address locally created air pollution.

The C40Cities, launched in 2005, is a group created and led by cities that connects 90+ cities across 50+countries, representing 650+ million people and one quarter of the global economy. The group recognizes that cities generate most of the world’s carbon emissions and house almost 60% of the global population, hence the importance of their stance in transforming the systems that create the most carbon emissions: transport, building and waste.

What is the Air’volution?

It’s the collection of actions taken by cities to address air pollution and control vehicle emissions. Remember what started as a VW (Volkswagen) scandal? There is now a list of car manufacturers that have been found to manipulate the tests of car emissions. Not to mention that we now know the real polluting nature of diesel cars, even the EURO 6 diesel engines releases more fine particulate matter than heavy duty trucks. Such as:

  • Emissions on the road have been proven to be 15 times greater than emissions in laboratory conditions. Paris and London are working on creating a scheme to score new cars based on their real-world emissions and air quality impact, rather than a laboratory measure. All data is expected to be released by end 2017 so that consumers will be able to know the score for each car model. Seoul, Madrid, Mexico City, Milan, Moscow, Oslo and Tokyo and other cities have committed to work in the development of a global scoring system.

“For too long, some vehicle manufacturers have been able to hide behind inconsistent regulation and consumer uncertainty about the damage their cars are causing,” said Mayor of Paris and C40 Chair, Anne Hidalgo. “This announcement is a wake-up call to car companies that they need to act now. Citizens of Paris and cities around the world demand clean air to breathe and this new scoring scheme will be key to helping achieve that.  I am pleased that Paris, the city of the Climate Agreement, is working with London and Seoul to support this project.”

“This scheme is also a fantastic example of how big cities around the world can pool their expertise and their influence to encourage big industry to clean up its act. The toxicity of the air in London and many other big cities is an outrage, and schemes of the type we are introducing in London and Paris have the potential to make a massive difference to the quality of the air we all breathe.”

Other measures include:

  • Cities implementing low-emission zones: London has proposed to introduce an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in central London, where cars will have to meet the minimum emission requirements or pay a daily fine (£10). In Paris, vehicles are restricted access for the most polluting vehicles, through the use of Crit’Air stickers. And Seoul has recently designated a Green Transport Promotion Zone that restricts old diesel vehicles and construction equipment, the objective is to cut carbon emissions from vehicles by 40% and vehicle demand by 30%.

A number of Asian cities are part of the C40Cities: Auckland, Bangaluru, Bangkok, Beijing, Chengdu, Chennai, Delhi, Dalian, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Hong Kong, Jaipur, Jakarta, Kolkata, Mumbi, Nanjing, Singapore, Shenzen, Shanghai, Seoul, Sydney, Yokohama, Chennai, Mumbai, Tokyo and Wuhan.  Most of these cities need to learn from experiences from other cities in reducing vehicles emissions.

We need to better understand air pollution patterns in our cities to make the most of these policies. Deployment of air quality monitors across the cities is the first step!

Sources:
http://www.c40.org/events/air-volution
http://www.c40.org/press_releases/press-release-mayors-of-paris-and-london-announce-car-scoring-system-to-slash-air-pollution-on-city-streets
http://theicct.org/blogs/staff/first-look-results-german-transport-ministrys-post-vw-vehicle-testing