On clear days, the beautiful city of Almaty, Kazakhstan offers a stunning skyline backed by the Tian Shan mountains. But clear days are becoming fewer and farther between. Sadly, these unique views are often obstructed or fully blocked by poisonous smog.
Air pollution is more than just a nuisance. In Kazakhstan alone, it contributes to over 6,000 premature deaths and causes estimated economic losses of over US$ 1.3 billion per year.
Worse, the problem extends throughout the Central Asia region, where none of the countries meets the World Health Organization (WHO) annual safety limits for suspended small particles. You might not guess that in December 2020, Bishkek, in the Kyrgyz Republic, recorded the highest levels of pollution in the world.
The prevalence of air pollution and the damage it causes should spur immediate action. Here are five ways countries in Central Asia can improve air quality, preserve economic gains, and save lives.
1. Improve air quality monitoring.
Not all pollutants are the same. Not all locations are the same. Not all seasons or even days are the same.
Much of the current data represent generalizations: averages over long periods and large geographic areas. Such generalizations do not lead to effective solutions. We need to improve air quality monitoring and management so we can understand the precise concentrations of individual pollutants at specific locations, times of day and seasons.
2. Overhaul industry permits.
Environmental permits that set limits on emissions must balance improved air quality with continued economic development across the region. Industrial expansion remains a priority, but it must be conducted in such a way that it fully contributes toward Green, Resilient and Inclusive Development (GRID).
3. Shift to cleaner fuels and technologies step-by-step.
Ultimately, Central Asian countries will need to shift to cleaner, more efficient energy sources that reduce pollutants and GHG levels, such as solar and wind. Upfront investments in these technologies can be offset by savings from reduced energy costs over time. Optimizing the performance of existing equipment, introducing improved technology in the near-term, and shifting to cleaner fuels over time are all realistic and affordable steps to take.
4. Incentivize change.
The scale of necessary change requires a total transformation for many sectors of industry, entire municipalities, and even within individual households. Governments can help change behavior by using both fiscal incentives — such as green subsidies — and pressures — such as pollutant-linked fines. Policies such as tax rebates or the implementation of Low Emissions Zones – where vehicles meeting higher emission standards pay a lower fee to enter or are the only vehicles that can enter the zone – can incentivize the purchase of vehicles with higher emissions standards.
5. Aggressive, but achievable timelines.
We would all love a quick solution so we can wake up tomorrow and see clear skies and breathe in fresh, clean air. But it doesn’t work that way. All of the steps above require a formal commitment from governments, financial investments, capacity building, and the deployment of new technology. With this in mind, it is possible to achieve improved air quality and contribute to GHG emission reductions by 2030, but will require an aggressive roadmap to optimize the way forward and immediate action.
With the support of the World Bank, countries in Central Asia have begun to take initial steps toward cleaner air. For example, in Uzbekistan, we are finalizing a study that shows how planting more saxaul trees, a species native to Central Asia, can help reduce air pollution linked to sand and dust storms in the Aral Seabed. The Aral Sea Basin has degraded to such a degree that it is now mostly a salt desert. It is the source of dust storms that carry about 15-75 million tons of salt and dust each year and negatively impact air quality and people’s health. The study is part of a larger effort of land restoration that we are embarking upon across Central Asia.
In Kazakhstan, the World Bank is supporting the national and local governments as they conduct a scoping study on cost-effective air quality management measures. Through this work we are collecting data and information that will guide future efforts to reduce air pollution. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the World Bank is supporting development of an Air Quality Improvement Master Plan, including pre-feasibility studies that will prioritize measures to improve the air quality in Bishkek.
With these actions, and others, we can clear the skies in Central Asia and help the citizens enjoy better quality of life by reducing air pollution that will improve people’s health, reduce GHG emissions, achieve billions in economic gains across Central Asia, and save thousands of lives each year. It will make me and the citizens of Almaty extremely happy from being able to see clear views of the Tian Shan all year-round.