Pollution: A major threat to biodiversity and human survival

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane and black carbon into the atmosphere. Arifin Al Alimudi/ACB Zooming in for Biodiversity Photo Contest Entry

This year’s World Environment Day on Wednesday, with the theme Beat Air Pollution, brings global attention to the impacts of deteriorating air quality to the health of the environment, and of people.

This theme is very relevant to the people of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), now more than ever, given that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has reported that the most dominant causes of air pollution in the region’s rural areas is biomass burning; and in urban areas, vehicle and industrial emissions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that indoor air pollution in the Asean region caused more than 376,000 premature deaths, while outdoor air pollution was estimated to cause more than 149,000 premature deaths annually.

Humans rely on the planet’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems – they are the source of our air, water and food; raw materials for medicine and shelter; and natural capital for businesses and industries.

But this richness is threatened by pollution, one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystems degradation.

The UNEP has identified five major sources of air pollution: households, industries, transport, agriculture and wastes.

Household air pollution comes from the indoor burning of fossil fuels, wood and other biomass based fuels for cooking, heating and lighting homes.

The UNEP reported that the global transport sector accounts for almost one quarter of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Transport emissions have been linked to nearly 400,000 premature deaths.

Health risks

Agriculture has two major contributors to air pollution – livestock, which produce methane and ammonia, and the burning of agricultural waste.

Around 24 per cent of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide come from agriculture, forestry and other land use.

Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane and black carbon into the atmosphere.

The UNEP says that an estimated 40 per cent of waste is openly burned.

According to the WHO, nine out of 10 people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollutants that exceed safe levels.

Thus, air pollution also contributes to health risks, aside from triggering global warming, biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems.

The Asean region, endowed with a diversity of species, forests, marine areas, oceans, and wetlands, will stand to lose much of these natural richness if the quality of air continue to deteriorate, and along with this, the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, which are key to the survival, development, well-being and prosperity of some 650 million Asean citizens.

The Asean member states – Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – supported by the Asean Centre for Biodiversity, have a number of programmes aimed at protecting the region’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems from pollution and other drivers of biodiversity loss.

A major initiative is the Asean Heritage Parks (AHP) Programme, which promotes protection of biodiversity-rich protected areas through effective management, including preventing all forms of pollution.

The majority of these AHPs are forest areas, which play a key role in the battle against climate change, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere while storing carbon dioxide.

Forests are called “green lungs” of the earth and are vital to the survival of people against air pollution.

Aside from the AHP Programme, Asean also has an initiative to reduce greenhouse emissions from peatland fires through the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Asean has also been gradually adopting the biophilic approach to greener and more sustainable cities.

Scientific studies have proven that with more trees in the city, the prevalence of childhood asthma tended to drop. So as the urban areas in the region expand, more and more sub-national governments are planning

to build cities that are greener and biodiversity-friendly, therefore less polluted.

Humans can be solution

Most causes of air pollution come from human activities.

But humans can also be the solution to this global problem.

Industries can put in place technologies that will reduce the release of air pollutants from their operations.

They can spearhead and mobilise their company personnel and even the public to plant native and appropriate vegetation in their surrounding areas that will help absorb carbon, and reduce air-borne and respiratory problems in nearby communities.

ACB supports such biodiversity-friendly initiatives from the private sector.

On transport, the public can be encouraged to use alternative means, such as bicycles, skateboards or scooters, to reach closer destinations, and to call for dedicated lanes to be set up for the purpose.

The practice of reducing, reusing, and recycling of waste can also start at home.

Waste segregation can reduce the volume of residual waste and methane emission from saturated landfills.

The World Environment Day is not the only chance to demonstrate that if human activities are the cause of pollution, humans can also be the solution.

Let us make each day of the year an opportunity to practise green lifestyles and behaviour.

Let us all promote green living by decreasing our carbon prints, using environmentally friendly products, clean technology, and renewable energy to help ensure an environment with healthy biodiversity and ecosystems that will contribute to sustainable development, human development and human survival.

Dr Theresa Mundita S Lim is the Executive Director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity.