28 May 2022, New Delhi/Dhaka/Islamabad/Kathmandu: As evidence grows about the impact poor air quality has on human health, medical practitioners and lawmakers from South Asia on Saturday called for collaborative action to phase out the use of fossil fuels – one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the region.
In this effort, Members of Parliaments, health professionals and think tanks from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, have proposed a regional working group to find and drive solutions to curb air pollution and lead with innovative climate action in the region.
“Parliaments play a very important role to put pressure on the government for them to take responsibility for the air pollution problem. They must take ownership to do their own research and establish the link between health and air pollution. All South Asian governments need to consider that. Given the size of our community, and the common context, we need to have South Asia driven solutions,” said Gaurav Gogoi, Member of Parliament from India.
Research shows that every one in six deaths in the world could be attributed to various types of pollution, particularly air pollution with a lion’s share in South Asia. Home to over 1.85 billion people, South Asia is the world’s most populated region, comprising middle and lower-middle-income countries which are afflicted with similar polluting sources and share a regional airshed making multi-sectoral mitigation efforts a mammoth challenge.
Dr Arvind Kumar, Founder Trustee, Lung Care Foundation explains, “Doctors have been seeing the effects of air pollution on their patients every day – it is not a chemical issue, nor a temperature issue, it’s a health issue and a fight for survival issue. Fossil fuels are the root cause of air pollution and climate crisis. If we let fossil fuels continue to be used, humans will become a fossil. We urgently need to shift to renewable green energy sources across all sectors.”
The webinar “Resolving South Asia’s Clean Air and Health Crisis – Phasing out Fossil Fuels for Clean Air – Evidence from Medical Professionals”, organized jointly by Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA), Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), Doctors For Clean Air & Climate Action, Fossil Fuel Treaty, and Climate Trends, is the second effort in a regional collaboration of health professionals, in responding to the evidence about the impact poor air quality has on human health. Fossil fuels are one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the region.
“Air pollution and climate change know no boundaries, the entire South Asian region is at risk. This is a regional challenge, and it requires a regional approach to help, support and inspire action. A regional approach will allow countries to spend their money more efficiently, pool their resources on climate change, and share this collective knowledge with governments, NGOs, the private sector, and citizens. It’s time that South Asian countries put aside their differences and come together to tackle air pollution and the climate crisis; it’s time for a bold collective action and leadership.” said Sanjay Vashist, Director of Climate Action Network South Asia.
The call was made ahead of the Stockholm+50 conference where the world’s environment ministers will meet to commemorate 50 years since the first international UN summit on the environment. While a lot has been done in these years, there is a need for ambitious political action.
Pakistan MP Riyaz Fatyana said, “Pakistan is badly affected by air pollution, which includes cross-border pollution as well. As a politician I see the need for regional cooperation in working towards a clean environment. We must include this in our manifesto, and work with our local government departments, for implementation of our clean air policies and international treaties. Our national afforestation plan has been in full swing, and needs to continue.”
Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the region and the world and there is hence a need for collective effort. The call first to action by medical professionals towards phasing out fossil fuels in the region was made on the occasion of the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies (September 7).
“There is nothing to be proud of the fact that 37 out of 40 most polluted cities in the world are in South Asia. It is every citizen’s responsibility to ask their governments to act on air pollution. As doctors, we need to sensitize governments and people that air pollution is a public health crisis,” said Prof. Dr Abdul Majeed Chaudhry, Member, Board of Governors, Cancer Research & Treatment Foundation, Pakistan.
The impact on air pollution is increasingly evident among citizens, the doctors said. “The burning of fossil fuels is one of the main causes of high levels of air pollution, which causes many chronic respiratory diseases. Women, children, and the elderly both in the rural and urban areas are at high risk. Doctors are trusted voices; we need to come together to push for policy and strong political decisions to phase out fossil fuels and help create a future that is healthy for all,” said Dr Kazi S. Bennoor, Assistant Professor (Respiratory Medicine), National Institute of Diseases of the Chest & Hospital, Bangladesh
Expressing that the problem is beyond the boundaries of individual countries, Dr Ramesh Chokhani,
President Nepalese Respiratory Society said, “Burning of fossil fuels is the leading cause for air pollution and poor health not just in Nepal but in the entire region. The health community is an important and powerful voice which can make a difference. We need regional cooperation; we need bold leadership, and we need to work together for better health and environment to survive the impacts of climate change and air pollution.”
On a global scale, coal emissions can travel long distances affecting populations living remote from power plants. To address this transboundary problem, South Asian lawmakers need a strong foundation of political will and science to build strong partnerships between governments, academia, industries and community groups. MP Prof Pushpa Kumari Karna Kayastha from Nepal said, “There has been enough evidence that poor air quality impacts human health. There are periods during winter and many other times during the rest of the year when the PM2.5 levels are way above WHO permissible limits. Hence there is need for urgent action. The MPs can pressure parliaments in different ways and that is what we are trying to do to ensure that governments work in the right direction.”
Implementation of promised action too must be tracked, feel MPs. “As MPs we have a role to play in enacting budgetary legislation for cleaner air not just nationally and regionally but globally as well. In the Bangladesh parliament, we have declared a ‘planetary emergency’ due to the number of emerging crises that include increased frequency of disasters, water and food security, biodiversity loss, for which we have legislations in place, but have to ensure that they are implemented,” said Bangladesh MP Saber Chaudhary.
The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative is spurring international cooperation to end new development of fossil fuels, phase out existing production within the agreed climate limit of 1.5°C, and develop plans to support workers, communities and countries dependent on fossil fuels to create secure and healthy livelihoods. “We need to share our resources at the regional level but there needs to be global cooperation. Despite added renewable energy, the share of fossil fuels in energy demand has barely changed. This is where we have been advocating a Fossil Fuel Treaty which compliments the Paris Agreement. There has to be no expansion, there must be a need to also phase out in an equitable model and have just transition. We already have legislators already endorsing, but along with the researchers, organisations and health professionals should define what it would mean for South Asia and take it ahead,” said Harjeet Singh from the Fossil Fuel Treaty.
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