DUBAI: Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, and only one out of 10 cities meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality standards.
As such, the UN is understandably focused on this emerging environmental risk as World Environment Day is marked on June 5. According to the latest WHO data, Saudi Arabia is home to some of the cities with the worst air quality.
“The Gulf region is one of the most polluted in the world due to its addiction to oil and gas,” said Julien Jreissati, a campaigner at Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa (MENA). “This is both on the supply side — with most of the pollution hotspots lying near oil drilling sites, in Saudi Arabia for instance — and on the demand side, with electricity and transport.”
Experts ascribe the high pollution levels in the Gulf to dependence on fossil fuels, and lax emissions standards and regulation with regard to fossil fuel-burning power plants, industries and vehicles. They say urgent action is needed given that 93 percent of the world’s children live in places where air pollution levels are above WHO guidelines, nearly 3 billion people depend on burning solid fuels or kerosene to meet household energy needs, and air pollution is costing the global economy more than $5 trillion every year in welfare costs.
The desert climate is also to blame for the Gulf’s air pollution problem. Climate change will not only elevate temperatures to potentially unbearable levels in the region, but also spur an increase in atmospheric pollution, with worrying health implications.
“It’s clear that air pollution is already one of the biggest threats for public health that we’re confronting at the moment,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director of public health, environment and social determinants of health at the WHO. “Globally, we have 7 million premature deaths that are attributable to air pollution. We have very hot areas in Asia and Africa where air pollution represents a huge problem,” she added. “As for high concentrations of toxic air, we can observe across the world that some parts of the Middle East are among those most affected.”
Neira underscored air pollution’s link to sand and desert dust — transboundary factors that are likely to be accelerated by climate change, especially in areas with large concentrations of petrochemical industries and high volumes of shipping and vehicular traffic. “The linkages between exposure to air pollution and health problems have been very well established,” she said.
“Air pollution will be causing obstructive chronic respiratory diseases and lung cancer. Toxic air won’t just go into the lungs but also the brain and heart, so we need to protect the population.”
The State of Global Air Report 2019 identifies air pollution as the fifth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide.
It is responsible for more deaths than better-known factors such as malnutrition, alcohol use and physical inactivity, the report said.
Each year, more people die from air pollution-related diseases than from road traffic injuries or malaria, it added.
“In the six Gulf countries, ambient air pollution was responsible for 13,000 premature deaths in 2017, according to the Global Burden of Disease,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst at the Greenpeace Air Pollution Unit. “This is a substantial increase over the 10,000 deaths in 2010.”
In most cases, high concentrations of particulate matter — fine particles from indoor and outdoor sources that are able to travel into the respiratory tract and reach the lungs — are to blame. The most harmful is PM2.5, tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and a half microns, or less, in width.
According to the State of Global Air Report 2019, exposure to PM2.5 is extremely high in the Middle East, with Qatar ranking the highest, followed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait. Average pollution exposure in these countries is well above average levels in China.
The findings show that more than 90 percent of people worldwide are exposed to pollution levels exceeding WHO guidelines for healthy air — some by five times — with more than half living in areas that do not even meet the organization’s least-stringent air quality standards.
Myllyvirta points to fossil fuel burning — particularly the burning of heavy oil in power plants, refineries and factories — as the leading cause of air pollution in the Gulf. “The second most important source is soil dust, which is in principle ‘natural’ but can increase with climate change due to drought and desertification,” he said. “Our global mapping of the sources of NOx pollution, one of the key ingredients of PM2.5, also pointed to oil-fired power plants and oil refineries, besides transportation, as key sources,” he added. “Alarmingly, the Gulf is one of the few regions in the world besides South Asia where pollution levels are increasing. This is no surprise as oil consumption in the region rose 25 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to (oil company) BP.”
Pointing to the Gulf’s abundant sunshine, Jreissati said the region’s true wealth lies in the sky, not underground.
“The region is one of the world’s sunniest,” he added. “In order to combat both local pollution and global climate change, it’s imperative that the Gulf countries initiate a fast transition to renewable energies, which are clean, cheap, and can provide jobs.”
Large-scale deployment of renewables has the potential to make a big difference to ambient air quality.
“This has started in the UAE with massive solar energy plants, some operational and others being constructed,” Jreissati said.
“There’s also a strong need to develop a transport system that puts the health of people, not polluting cars, at its center. This means more electrified public transport, more shared mobility and less internal-combustion-engine vehicles.”
Myllyvirta concurs, saying transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy should be the Gulf’s main focus. “Fossil fuels currently receive massive subsidies that should be phased out rapidly. At the same time, oil-burning power plants and factories should be required to install proper emission-control devices to reduce the toll they’re taking on public health,” he said. “Similarly, emissions standards for vehicles — which are decades behind Europe and other advanced countries — should be upgraded.”
Saudi Arabia initiated steps to protect public health two years ago when its Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture launched an initiative to monitor air quality and emissions of pollutants. The measure required the Kingdom’s estimated 7,000 industrial facilities with chimneys to install units that would measure pollution in real time at source.
“Air pollution is quite serious in the region,” said Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of the UAE-based green social enterprise Goumbook.
“This is a threat that exposes us to respiratory illnesses and other related diseases, but there’s more awareness now,” she added.
“We can reverse the path we’re on and have a positive impact with knowledge, dedication and determination.”
Ultimately, however, the cities of the future will have to change. “The measures needed to tackle the issue are particularly important in places where we have a high density of population and … where we have massive urbanization,” Neira said. “Clearly, we need to reduce the sources of air pollution (linked to human activity) by applying technologies in industrial processes,” she added.
“We also need to promote more sustainable mobility. We can’t rely on private cars. We need to shift to electric vehicles, and be very conscious that the way our urban areas and cities will be planned, designed and organized for citizens — not just for cars — is extremely important from the standpoint of public health.”