Fighting Air Pollution: Mexico and China Show How to Do It

Cities in China, India and Mexico are still among the most polluted in the world. In recent years, however, concrete measures have been taken in all three countries to combat air pollution. The population in these countries has become more aware of air pollution and the issue is now also on the political agenda. On the other hand, the countries of the Western Balkans continue to invest in polluting coal-fired power plants, ignoring the deadly consequences for the population.

Above the city lies a dense yellow fog cloud. One’s neck itches, the head hurts and the eyes burn. Nine out of ten people today are affected by such symptoms since they are exposed to air with too high pollutant content. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution causes an estimated seven million deaths worldwide every year.[1] Road traffic, energy production, agriculture, industry and private households are responsible. Air pollutants lead to breathing difficulties, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, which significantly shortens our life expectancy. Poor air quality has become a major health problem, especially for children. In 2016, more than half a million children under the age of five died as a result of air pollution.[2]

The good news: Since 1990, political measures worldwide have led to a reduction in premature deaths. According to the WHO, more than half of cities in affluent countries have reduced air pollution by more than 5% in five years. In poorer countries, this has reached more than a third.[3]

China has always been one of the countries with the highest levels of air pollution. Nevertheless, the country has taken an important step in the right direction. In 2013, the Chinese government recognized that the problem was serious and started its fight against polluted air. In the same year, when the Air Quality Index (AQI) measurement showed a value exceeding 700, the government implemented a contingency plan: Factories had to reduce production, just over a third of public administration cars were not allowed to drive, and people were advised to stay outdoors as little as possible.[4]

Action plan and control

In the same year, the Chinese State Council published an action plan for the prevention and control of air pollution. The plan contains various measures to accelerate energy restructuring and aims to introduce a monitoring, warning and emergency system for air pollution episodes. Specific targets have also been set for coal consumption and vehicle emission control. The five-year action plan reduced PM2.5 by 35%.[5] After that, the Chinese government developed a "Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War" at the end of 2017. The plan provides for a complete restructuring of the polluting industries by 2019.[6]

Until today, Beijing has had the greatest success in the fight against bad air. At the end of 2017, the average improvement in air quality was 54% compared with the previous year.[7] To combat vehicle emissions, which account for one third of Beijing's emissions, an annual quota of 150,000 new cars was set in 2017. In addition, Beijing aims to reduce coal consumption by more than half by 2020.[8]

Sustainable buses and clear rules

In Mexico City the air pollution was also once very serious. In 1992, the city was on the top position in the list of cities with the highest levels of air pollution worldwide. Today, the situation has improved somewhat and the awareness of the population has increased. The government has introduced a rule that residents have to leave their cars at home one working day a week and it was determined on which days cars with even and odd number plates are allowed on the street. At the same time, car owners have been required to test their vehicles for emissions every six months. Furthermore, the government has invested in sustainable buses and new bus routes along the city. [9] In 2016, they also supported the "Vía Verde" citizens' initiative. As part of the initiative, 700 concrete piers were planted. Studies have shown that this has had a positive effect on the air quality in this area. [10]

India’s pollution levels are some of the highest in the world. On the world list of the cities with the most polluted air, 14 Indian cities are in the top 20. Air pollution continues to rise alarmingly. In view of the massive aggravation of the situation, last year the Indian central government for the first time made funds available for an awareness campaign. Coal-fired power plants were shut down and on certain days traffic restrictions were imposed.[11] After the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Delhi rose again to 427 in November, the government launched a ten-day clean air campaign. Diesel generators and the incineration of waste were banned, mobile air cleaners were used and the number of buses in the city center was increased.[12] Although very slowly, something is happening, even in India: awareness of the problem has grown and politicians have recognized air pollution as a serious challenge.[13]

A look at China, Mexico and India shows that measures have been taken to combat air pollution in recent years and that some progress has been made. Perhaps they are not the right measures, goals were missed and planned projects could not be implemented. But a certain sensitization of the population and politicians has taken place.

Nevertheless, despite national and international measures, the damage to health caused by air pollution is increasing. In 2050, polluted air will be the main environmental cause of premature death.[14] In Europe alone, around 442,000 people died in 2015. According to researchers from the European Environment Agency, bad air is already the main cause of premature deaths in Europe.[15]

Air pollution in Europe

Air pollution cannot be so easily limited to individual countries such as India, China or Mexico; it is a global problem.[16] Cities in the Western Balkans also regularly occupy top positions when it comes to air pollution. In the second week of January, the average value of PM10 in Sarajevo was 300 µg/m³, ahead of Delhi (295 µg/m³), Beijing (52 µg/m³) and Mexico City (22 µg/m³). The daily values in January clearly exceeded the WHO daily average of 50 µg/m³. An improvement of the air quality in the near future is not foreseeable. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also ahead of India, China and Mexico in the number of people who die each year as a result of poor air quality. In fact, North Korea is the only country in the world with more deaths per capita from polluted air than Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Like Mexico, India and China, Bosnia and Herzegovina has also set default values for PM10. The annual value is 40 µg/m³, whereby the daily value should not exceed the 50 µg/m³ limit more than 35 times per year. But already in the first 17 days of 2019, the established standard in Sarajevo was exceeded 15 times.

Western Balkans: Politicians ignore the problem

On 13 January 2019, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Sarajevo was 588 and the PM10 value 761 µg/m³. Despite the high values, which can have serious health consequences for the general public, the cantonal government has not reacted. This is not an isolated case in the region. In the Western Balkans, air pollution is hardly a political issue. Occasionally, politicians take short-term measures, as a recent example from Skopje shows, where the government has raised the price of parking in the city center and public transport is free. However, politicians largely ignore the negative effects of polluted air. A positive development are groups and organizations that try to brief the public about the issue. An example of this is the NGO Eko Akcija, which has developed a smog app[17]. The application keeps people in Bosnia and Herzegovina informed about air quality and its consequences.

The lack of sensitivity of people and politics in the Western Balkans is also reflected in the media coverage. Both in national and international reports, the issue is primarily addressed when air pollution rises to an extremely harmful level for seasonal reasons and smog becomes clearly visible. Reporting is often limited to a description of the circumstances without criticizing the lack of political commitment or discussing possible measures.

The examples of China, India and Mexico show that air pollution can be successfully combated with political will, laws, rules and the development of innovative solutions. However, to reach the political agenda, public pressure on politicians must be increased. For this to happen, it is indispensable that the general population be sensitized.

Author: Laura Meier for hbs


[1] (Retrieved 08.01.2019).

[5] (Retrieved 16.01.2019).

[17] (Retrieved 15.01.2019).