COVID-19 Shows Policy Guidance for Regional Air Pollution Reduction

COVID-19 Shows Policy Guidance for Regional Air Pollution Reduction

By Office of Public Affairs

Experts at Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific (RRC.AP) reveals how COVID-19 has shown policy guidance for air pollution reduction in the post-pandemic future.

As air pollution knows no political borders, it travels without a passport – much like contagious diseases such as COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016 were caused by outdoor air pollution. When air quality is poor, forcing people to stay indoors, productivity then drops, causing an economic slump. In addition, polluted air affects agricultural crop yields, threatening food security – which also affects our wellbeing.

Logo of Malé Declaration

With countries from South Asia ranked among the world’s top air polluters, the RRC.AP held a policy dialogue at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), facilitated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) which attended by senior-level officials from the Ministry of Environment of the South Asian countries in 1998. Later in the same year, the Governing Council of the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP) convened in Malé, the Republic of Maldives, and adopted a regional intergovernmental cooperation framework titled “the Malé Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and its Likely Transboundary Effects for South Asia” – later known as “Malé Declaration”.

“Over the last more than two decades of implementation of Malé Declaration, the regional cooperation among the Malé Declaration member countries has been strengthened toward regional policy setting for addressing transboundary impacts of air pollution in South Asia including national capacity building of countries and awareness-raising. Through information sharing and learning from each other, the member countries made time-bound national action plans and policies for the reduction of air pollution. The countries are achieving significant progress as it showed a decreasing trend in the countries,” Dr. R. L. Verma, Coordinator of the Malé Declaration told.

By providing resources for policy setting towards sustainable development, the RRC.AP has assisted the Malé Declaration member countries to invent mechanisms and allocate budgets to translate policy into actions at the national level. Through regional centers in India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Nepal, and the Maldives – activities at on  national scale have shown impact at the regional level.

With strengthened regional cooperation, a network of air quality monitoring sites has been established to generate the valuable dataset, enabling the development of emission inventories, air quality modeling, and impact assessment studies on human health and agriculture. Such infrastructure has raised awareness and assisted in policymaking, allowing the Malé Declaration member countries to collectively enhance their regional capacity and to effectively tackle air pollution and its transboundary impacts.

Since the inception of the Malé Declaration, the work towards air pollution reduction in South Asia has been implemented and achieved significant progress in phases – Phase 1 to 2 from 1999 to 2004 was focused on laying the groundwork for policy setting including conducting baseline studies, preparation of national action plans, establishing and strengthening national air quality monitoring facilities, building national capacities on air quality monitoring and analysis, sharing of information and data, Phase 3 to 6 from 2005 to 2020 focusing on enhancing the existing framework and activities, Phases 6 from 2021 to 2025 is currently under consideration by member countries despite a disruption caused by COVID-19 pandemic.

Change in concentrations of key air pollutants nationwide and major metro cities in India before (BLD) and during lockdown (DLD)

Like many countries around the world, a nationwide lockdown has been imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19. Many economic and social activities have been restricted. Notably, air quality has improved in many countries as a consequence.

From a published study on Impacts of COVID-19 on Air Quality in India since March 2020, using data from more than 200 Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations combined with satellite maps, RRC.AP affiliated researchers R.L. Verma and J.S. Kamyotra (CPCB, India) have found a new nationwide baseline for the inhalable particles – particularly the lethal PM10 and PM2.5. Comparing to the data from April 2019 and before the lockdown to March 2020 and during the lockdown in India, the concentration levels of air pollutants, namely, PM10; PM2.5; CO; and NO2, had dramatically dropped by 53%; 45%; 27%; and 54, respectively.

Such data can provide policy guidance for air pollution reduction when all economic and social activities resume after the pandemic, the authors argued.

“It suggests that if the emissions of air pollutants reduced from transport, industries, commercial activities, including from biomass burning in domestic cooking as well open burning, the current national standard for PM10 and PM2.5, can be achieved. It will also assist the countries in achieving the sustainable development goals pertaining to clean air and climate change since emissions of GHGs and SLCP will also be reduced significantly”, Dr. Verma told.

With detailed analysis on sources of the emissions of air pollutants, the experts suggested that the reduction of air pollution to the level of national standard can be achieved.

Considering the similar air pollution situations in countries associated with the Malé Declaration, the results of this study can also be applied in the member countries to achieve regional results. After all, an improvement of air quality in one country is ephemeral as the wind constantly changes its directions.


The Region Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific (RRC.AP) is one of the research centers of the Asian Institute of Technology which offers its expertise for the sustainable development of the region. RRC.AP aims to provide resources for policy setting towards sustainable development, acting as a science-policy interface by regional networking, processing and assessing information and knowledge for governments and other stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region. The center operates through three thematic clusters, namely, Climate Change, Air Pollution, and Waste and Resource Management.

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