Air pollution is a threat to urban sustainability

Air pollution threatens urban sustainability owing to increasing global population and the shifting of people to dwell in cities and urban areas.

Prof Dr Ian Pashby, Group President of Peninsula Higher Education, was speaking on “The Danger of Air Pollution in an Ever Urbanising World” at the Symposium on ‘Technologies for Sustainable Urban Development’ (TechSUD 2023) on 13 May 2023.

World population has exceeded 8 billion - from 3 billion in 1960.

He cited six threats to urban sustainability: suburban sprawl, waste disposal, water quality, energy use, climate change, and air quality. He said the world population will increase from the current 8.05 billion to 10 billion in 2050, and correspondingly, the urban population from 4.4 billion to 7 billion.

He said the world’s largest city, Chongqing, has 31 million people, with Delhi to take over in 2050 with a predicted 49.6 million. Each person in Chongqing generates 1.08kg solid waste per day, he added.

Prof Pashby shared that Chongqing treats an equivalent of nearly 2 million swimming pools of waste water each year, and its energy use will reach 255 metric tonnes of carbon equivalent in 2025. He elaborated that climate change will lead to increased intensity and frequency of disasters like floods, fires, tornadoes and tropical storms.

Prof Pashby is Chairman of the Board of Governors, Peninsula College.

Focusing on air quality, he said air pollution can cause increased incidences of asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and other respiratory tract diseases, cancers and heart diseases.

He highlighted that air pollution is assessed based on the presence of small particles (particulate matter, PM, of up to 2.5 microns in diameter) which can enter through the lungs into the bloodstream. According to him, the World Health Organisation safe limit for continuous exposure of PM2.5 particles is 5 microgrammes per cubic metre of air while for exceptional events, the limit for a single day exposure is 15 microgrammes.

According to Prof Pashby, countries ranked with PM2.5 levels (very good air quality) are found in Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, and Finland, while countries with bad air quality are India, China, Pakistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Chad and other parts of Africa. “Malaysia has 17.7 microgrammes per cubic metre of PM2.5s. Only 15 countries average the safe limit of 5 microgrammes.”

Part of the crowd at the event.

He listed the most polluted cities as Dammam (124), Lahore (112), New Delhi (89,) Dhaka (85), and Muzaffarnagar (81). In comparison, Jakarta is 36.2, Beijing 29.8, Kuala Lumpur 17.6, London 9.6, and Canberra 2.8.

He said the man-made sources of air pollution are agricultural, industrial, combustion, power generation, wood/coal burning, and construction, while natural sources are dust storms, sandstorms, and wild fires – which are all exacerbated by climate change.

“Over 1 billion people are exposed to outdoor air pollution each year. This will lead to over 6 million premature deaths a year, 93 million days illness, and loss of economic output valued at US$8 trillion globally,” he stressed.

Combination of strategies to solve the air pollution problem.

He felt the solutions to air pollution should involve technology, regulatory, behaviour (e.g. education), and economic factors. “We need to change people’s behaviour and their understanding of what is acceptable through education and sanctions.”

Earlier in her opening remarks, WOU Chief Executive and Vice Chancellor Prof Dr Lily Chan underlined the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and sustainable, and on climate change.

Prof Chan with TAM President Ts Tung Chee Kuan (left) on stage.

About 100 people from industry and higher learning institutions attended TechSUD 2023 at the main campus, organised by WOU’s School of Technology and Engineering Science (STE) and Technological Association Malaysia (TAM).

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