Three critical enablers to help global cities improve air quality

Nine out of ten people around the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, according to the World Health Organization. Air pollution is a serious by-product of rapid urbanization and particularly burning fossil fuels to generate the vast amounts of energy our world’s cities currently require.

As it stands, metropolitan areas account for 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption. With the rate of urbanization further accelerating, what can we do to protect the mutually beneficial relationship between cities and air that is so vital to sustaining future growth and quality of life?

Imagine 2060 is an original global series designed to inspire a new way of delivering the cities of tomorrow. Co-organized by the Asia Society and AECOM, this three-year conversation — with leaders in urban design, infrastructure, business and public policy — looks at how cities can foster stronger connections with their citizens, and with each other, to ensure a better world.

Following our 2017 discussions, At the Water’s Edge, the 2018 Towards a Clear Sky program brought together experts from across sectors to explore issues of air surrounding three diverse cities in the Asia Pacific region: Delhi, Melbourne and Hong Kong. From these conversations, three critical enablers to improve air quality in those and other cities around the world became clear: Political will, technology and regional collaboration.

Political will

Some 185 parties have committed to the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement. Yet, many nations are struggling to implement these aspirations. Through our dialogue, we identified that cities and states are often leading the way. In Australia, some states have a mandate for the blending of ethanol. Delhi is the first city in India to switch to the cleaner fuel option of BS6 for vehicles. In Hong Kong, ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions by at least another 65 percent are on the table through the city’s Clean Air Plan 2020 and Climate Action Plan 2030+.

Cities play an essential role in increasing renewable energy options and infrastructure toward a greener economy and lifestyle for citizens. Political will at both city and national levels is necessary to move all these plans and targets from concept to reality.

Technology

Imagine how much potential could be unlocked from renewable energy if we could better predict fluctuations and find new ways to manage its production. Melbourne is exploring the use of artificial intelligence to manage the large amounts of data that will help us to better understand loads, asset management and replacement. While, in Hong Kong, the Mass Transit Railway is looking at regenerative braking as a potential solution, to convert the kinetic energy from braking trains into electric energy that can be fed back into the power supply network.

In the years ahead, cities can serve as a place where new green technologies and approaches are piloted before being rolled out elsewhere. Social innovation needs to complement technological innovation. Cities can thus play a role in upgrading the technical skills needed to scale-up the use of renewables in the surrounding region.

Regional collaboration

Even cities that go to extraordinary lengths to achieve clean air can be challenged by air pollution that crosses municipal and national boundaries due to prevailing cross-winds. In Southeast Asia, for example it is common farming practice to clear land for regrowth by setting fire to the undergrowth. In doing so, palm oil farmers in Indonesia created a “haze” that afflicted downwind Malaysian cities and Singapore. It required considerable political effort and regional collaboration to remedy this, and control the pollution that had become a trans-boundary issue.

For Hong Kong’s clean air, regional and cross-sector collaboration across the Greater Bay Area (GBA) will be fundamental to the fast-growing region’s long-term sustainability. The GBA is a source of Hong Kong’s air quality and climate challenges, but it is also where the city can look for innovative solutions to decarbonize the energy sector by importing larger quantities of clean energy. The path towards a clear sky for all cities relies on common platforms for research, policy-making, monitoring and implementation across the surrounding region.

The way forward

Today, all cities are challenged with balancing the often-conflicting aims of clean air, economic growth and quality of life. The aim of our Imagine 2060 initiative is to generate and share ideas and solutions that can be applied to cities in similar stages of development, around the world.

Political will, technology and regional collaboration are interdependent enablers that all hinge on a change in mindset — from viewing sustainability as a cost to growth, to viewing it as a contributor. A crucial piece of this will be finding new approaches to decouple emissions from economic development. For Asia Pacific, as the world’s most populous and fastest urbanizing region, achieving growth without the large burden of emissions will be critical to the future livability of its cities.

To find out more about what cities can do to achieve clean air, download our full Year two report, Towards a Clear Sky.

Download for a summary of the international conversation Towards a Clear Sky across Delhi, Melbourne, and Hong Kong and some of the ideas generated