Improved air quality in Southeast Asia in 2022, report says

Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA
Improved air quality in Southeast Asia in 2022, report says Birds fly on a smoggy morning in Jakarta, May 27, 2022.

The quality of air in most Southeast Asian countries was better in 2022 compared to previous years, though its cities performed relatively worse, a new report said.

Cambodia was among the best performers as PM2.5 concentrations declined in seven of nine Southeast Asian countries last year, according to the World Air Quality Report by IQAir, a Swiss company that monitors the world’s major cities’ air quality in real-time.

“Countries in the Southeast Asia region have continued their efforts to decrease PM2.5 concentrations to safe levels recommended by the WHO guidelines,” according to IQAir’s fifth report released Tuesday night. “Industry, power generation, vehicle emissions, and open burning remain top contributors of PM2.5 in the area.”

PM2.5 are hazardous airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – about 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

According to the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline, an average annual exposure of PM2.5 should be no more than 5 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) to avoid serious health risks.

Indonesia’s air, ranked 26 globally, was the worst in Southeast Asia in 2022, with an annual average of 30.4 μg/m3. It was also the worst ASEAN performer in 2021, though it had improved in 2022 by 11%. The lower the score, the worse the ranking.

“Air pollution in Indonesia is driven by coal-fired power plants, forest fires, and peatland degradation, while major cities are especially impacted by vehicle emissions,” IQAir said.

Indonesia was coded Red, meaning the annual average PM2.5 exceeded WHO guidelines by five to seven times.

Myanmar was ranked at 35 with a national average of 24.4 µg/m3, while neighboring Thailand (18.1 µg/m3) was ranked 57 and Malaysia (17.7 µg/m3) was ranked 59.

Bangladesh was ranked 5 with a national average of 65.8 µg/m3, more than 13 times higher than the WHO guideline. By comparison, the Philippines, ranking 69, had a 14.9 µg/m3 annual average last year.

In Northern Thailand, PM2.5 concentrations spiked 400% higher than WHO recommended levels during the forest fires of March and April 2022, where people “are especially vulnerable to negative health impacts from air pollution,” the report said.

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A man covers his nose as he drives through an air polluted street in Hanoi, Oct. 1, 2019. [Reuters]

Cambodia experienced a 58% reduction in its annual average PM2.5 concentration in 2022, with a record low of 8.3 µg/m3, making it the least polluted country in the region.

Alarming levels

IQAir said it collected 2022 data from more than 30,000 air quality monitoring stations across 7,323 locations in 131 countries, territories and regions.

A scientist with Greenpeace International said such complex data “can inspire communities to demand change and hold polluters to account.”

“Too many people around the world don’t know that they are breathing polluted air. … Everyone deserves to have their health protected from air pollution,” said Aidan Farrow, an air quality scientist.

Air pollution reached alarming levels in 2022, with around 90% of the analyzed countries and territories exceeding WHO’s air quality guidelines, IQAir said.

The total economic cost equates to more than U.S. $8 trillion, surpassing 6.1% of the global annual GDP, according to the World Bank’s global health cost report released last year.

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Cars and pedestrians navigate along a street shrouded in haze in Beijing, March 10, 2023. [AP]

Despite being one of the worst air pollution offenders for decades, China demonstrated improved air quality in 2022, with almost 64% of the 524 cities analyzed in mainland China reporting reduced annual PM2.5 levels. Two cities in its Xinjiang region, Hotan and Kashgar, were ranked the 2nd and 30th most polluted in the world, based on data IQAir gathered between 2017 and 2022.

“China’s coal usage continues to be a point of concern. China is responsible for a large portion of the world’s coal production and usage,” the report said.


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