Widespread air quality data gaps threaten global pollution fight, study finds

Despite data being critical to enabling society to improve the air it breathes, most nations around the world do not measure pollution levels, while some choose not to make information publicly available.

Children, Jeepneys, Philippines
Children pass through a line of jeepneys, or public buses, in Manila. Image: Tear Cordez via Pexels

More than half of the world’s population lacks full access to timely and transparent air quality data, hindering efforts to tackle air pollution and raise public awareness of its detrimental effects on the environment and human health, according to a new report released on Thursday (9 July).

The study, by American non-profit OpenAQ, which fights air inequality through open data, finds that at least 30 nations such as China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam generate real-time air quality data but do not share it with their citizens in a fully open manner, affecting 4.4 billion people.

Only four out of 10 governments around the globe make timely data publicly available. Worse even, in 51 per cent of the world’s countries that include Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia—and are home to some 1.4 billion people—no government data of any pollutant type is collected. Not surprisingly, air quality monitoring networks are often limited in highly polluted nations.

While data cannot immediately solve pollution and its impacts on people, taking measurements and making them publicly accessible are critical steps towards cleaner air. Data-sharing also improves citizens’ perception of their government’s legitimacy and credibility, reads the report.

Air quality data shapes decision-makers’ understanding of how dirty air wreaks damage on public health and the economy while helping to track progress on mitigation efforts, making it essential to design, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of pollution control policies.

Where an information vacuum exists, it prevents civil society initiatives from demanding action from policymakers and holding polluting industries to account. Public data also tells citizens if the air is safe to breathe, informing critical choices such as whether to wear a protective mask, or whether to stay home or venture outside on smoggy days. To the naked eye, lung-wrecking pollution can be invisible.

We can’t solve the problem of poor air quality without first understanding how big of a problem it is.

Dr Rebecca Garland, principal researcher, The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa

“Basic access to air quality data is the first step to improve the air we breathe. By providing access to fully open data, governments can enable the power of civil society - from scientists to policy analysts to activists to tackle the problem together. This will unlock the maximum potential and impact of government data, encourage innovation, and mobilise communities to act,” said OpenAQ founder Dr Christa Hasenkopf.

“We can’t solve the problem of poor air quality without first understanding how big of a problem it is,” noted Dr Rebecca Garland, principal researcher at The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a South African national research organisation.

Where real-time information is unavailable, strategic investments in monitoring and data-sharing infrastructure can help plug data gaps, reads the report. However, support from wealthier nations and philanthropic foundations is lacking, calling for overseas development funds to be linked to open data and air pollution. Of an estimated $150 billion invested each year by philanthropic groups, only 0.02 per cent is pumped into outdoor air quality improvements.

When governments make data openly-accessible, they must do so in a timely manner, as opposed to yearly averages of pollution levels, and it must come attached with geographic coordinates and be in an analysis-ready form to allow full use by civil society groups and individuals, write the authors.

In the wake of increasingly resource-intensive lifestyles, global air pollution has sharply risen in recent decades. Gas-guzzling cars, coal-fired power plants, industrial facilities and factories cough most of the world’s man-made pollutants into the atmosphere, with devastating effects on people and the climate.

Ambient air pollution kills 4.2 million people worldwide every year—more than three times the number of deaths caused by road traffic crashes—as a result of respiratory infections, strokes, heart disease and lung cancer, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). While the world’s most vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected—9 out of 10 deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries—dangerous air is a global problem: 9 out of 10 people breathe it.

A recent analysis by Beijing-based monitoring firm AirVisual revealed India is home to half of the world’s most polluted cities, but citizens in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Mongolia suffer from the filthiest air. Of the 100 most polluted cities globally in 2018, 99 are in Asia, showed a 2019 study by AirVisual and environmental campaigners Greenpeace.

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