On March 23 IQAir, an air quality technology company, released its “World Air Quality Report” which it stated was the first “major global air quality report based on (the) updated annual WHO air quality guideline for PM2.5.” As I read the report and noted which countries were called out as having poor air quality, I was reminded of a theory I’ve developed based on all of my international travels over the years—how countries undergo a sort of “environmental evolution” as they mature, and how an awful lot has to happen before societies really begin making solid progress on improving their environment.
You may recall that back in September of last year I wrote a piece on the World Health Organization (WHO) lowering its annual PM2.5 Air Quality Guideline (AQG) to 5 µg/m3 from the previous value of 10 µg/m3. Most people incorrectly regard the AQGs like our National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) here in the United States by treating them as health-based standards; however, the AQGs are not legally binding standards but rather are designed to provide WHO Member States with guidelines they can use to inform their own air quality regulations.
In its Constitution the WHO states that “(t)he enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being…” With that perspective it is not surprising that the WHO would lower its annual PM2.5 AQG to a very low level like 5 µg/m3, as it clearly wants to push governments across the world to require cleaner air quality. To give some context for how low this AQG is, nearly 500 locations in the United States have annual PM2.5 concentrations above it.
So back to the IQAir report that assessed air quality in the world relative to this new WHO AQG for annual PM2.5. In its press release IQAir stated that their report found “…that only three percent of cities and no single country met the latest WHO PM2.5 annual air quality guideline.” This isn’t surprising at all given the very low value of the annual PM2.5 AQG—after all, if one location in a country does not meet it then by definition the entire country does not meet it.
In its report IQAir presents a list of countries ranked by average annual PM2.5 concentration. Of the top 50, nearly 2/3 of them are in Asia, with those being in southeast Asia, the Middle East, or former Soviet bloc countries of western Asia. Africa was next on the list with 10, followed by Europe with 5—however, note that all of the European countries were former Soviet bloc countries. South America had only two entries and North America only had only one—Guatemala.
The majority of the countries on this list are in the early stages of what I like to call “environmental evolution.” When a country first comes into existence it typically is concerned with things like political stability and safety—how much smog is in the air really isn’t on their radar. Think of Iraq after the Gulf War—there was far more concern about IEDs and terrorists than air pollution.
After countries have become stable enough, they can then concern themselves with the state of their environment, and first on that list is usually clean drinking water. Once a society has access to clean water the next environmental topic to tackle is air pollution, and that’s where we find many of the countries on IQAir’s list today.
A prime example of this is Serbia. Several years ago, I was part of a delegation from the United States that traveled to Serbia to discuss environmental issues. Much of the focus at the time in Serbia was on waste disposal, but when I met with the Minister of the Environment (that's me with Minister Goran Trivan in the picture at the top) he talked passionately about cleaning up air quality. While the political will to make significant progress there really hasn’t taken hold yet, over the past few years the people of Serbia have begun staging protests against the government for not doing enough to fight air pollution or for supporting what they say are industrial projects that will do terrible harm to the environment.
Given the friends I made in Serbia I continue to watch with great interest the evolution of environmental awareness and protection in that country. There are many ingredients that must come together for a country to make significant progress on environmental protection—interest from society (some societies in the world, for a variety of reasons, truly just don’t care about the environment), political will and lack of corruption (if politicians are paid off by industries they’re not going to push for a cleaner environment), and financial means are just a few. In countries that you don’t see on the IQAir’s top 50 list those ingredients have already come together; for those countries on the list we’re still waiting for everything to gel.