Beyond Index and Over the Limit: Gasping for Air in the Megacities of Asia

June 3, 2013

Essay by Martin Abbott.


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Jakarta during monthly Car Free Day that takes place during the last Sunday of every month. © Wikimedia user Gunkarta.

This urban narrative sets out to introduce readers to the growing megacities of Asia: Beijing, Delhi and Jakarta, where often-neglected urban environments and improbable levels of airborne pollution are slowly becoming areas of greater public concern.

In terms of capitals, cities don’t come any more urban than Beijing, Delhi and Jakarta, urban giants that distinguish themselves as much by their geopolitical reach as by their size and growing consumption of natural resources. For the most part, they’re big and boisterous, home to populations in excess of 10 million and rapidly expanding. They also happen to be the political capitals of three of the world’s four most populated nations, a combined total that accounts for some 2.8 billion people or a staggering 40% of the world’s population.1 While the scale and density2 of their urban landscapes are immense, so too are their tarnished reputations, stained by the failure to reign in surging levels of airborne pollution that denote some of the most toxic metropolises’ on the planet.

Across Asia, urbanization has progressed at an unprecedented rate and in the last 30 years, more than 1 billion people have swelled the ranks of cities across the region.3 Remarkably, even though India can count an urban population of close to 380 million people, seven out of ten Indians still live in rural areas. In China and Indonesia, an urban tipping point has recently come to pass, whereby a small majority of people in both nations live in urban situations. In India, this point is still many decades away and not slated to take place until the middle of the century, when some 900 million people will live in cities across the country.4 Urbanization is a trend long underway in Asia and should only be expected to continue, at least in the foreseeable future. If as expected, Beijing, Delhi and Jakarta continue to welcome growing numbers of rural migrants, which in the case of Delhi is expected to be about 750,000 people a year during the coming decade or so, how will governments meet the basic infrastructural needs of residents while reducing harmful levels of pollution that seem predicated on such rapid urban development?

As urbanization gains pace, more people will find themselves living closer together than ever before, an urban reality that will increase demand for limited resources, taken from an increasingly depleted natural environment. In global terms, cities occupy only 2% of the earth’s total land area, yet they account for 75% of total resource use and unsurprisingly account for a similar share of total waste generated, the latter including air pollution, toxic effluents, and solid waste.5 Extracted in increasing quantities and consumed like never before, non-renewable resources such as coal, oil and gas fuel modern urban life and damage local and global environments in the process.

In principle, it is not only the transport sector’s inefficient combustion of fossil fuels that exacerbate levels of extreme air pollution in these cities, but the growing scale at which it is occurring, along with growing demands for electricity that is generated largely through coal and expanding industrial activity. For example, a World Bank research paper notes car ownership levels in Beijing doubled to 3 million vehicles between 2000 and 2007, and demand for space on the city’s roads is now far in excess of what is available. Consequently, the city is congested and air quality is the number one environmental concern.6 In Delhi, the Economic Times, a local newspaper, reports that more than 1,400 vehicles are added everyday to an urban fleet in excess of 8.1 million units.7 While in Jakarta, notorious for its snarling kilometer-long traffic jams, the government has admitted there is little it can do to limit the growing number of vehicles, recently estimated at 11.3 million, on city streets.8 In turn, organizations such as the World Health Organization are increasingly warning of the risk of respiratory disease and other related health problems caused by the catastrophic effects of contaminants in the atmospheres of these urban environments.

The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nation’s public health agency, tells us clean air is considered to be a basic requirement of human health and well-being. However, air pollution continues to pose a significant threat to health worldwide.9 As part of its Air Quality Guidelines, the WHO identifies four distinct types of pollutants that cause harm: nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, while emphasizing the serious health risks of dangerous levels of ozone and particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less that can enter deep inside the lungs and eventually, the blood stream, that is to say, the total mass of particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less. A human hair in comparison has an approximate diameter of 70-microns. Accordingly, its guidelines recommend maximum safe atmospheric levels of particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM 10) should not exceed 50 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). In comparison, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set this number at 54 micrograms and the European Union, 40 micrograms per cubic meter.

With the WHO guidelines in mind, any assessment of air quality across the three megacapitals during this northern winter would prove exceptionally bad, particularly in Beijing and Delhi. In Beijing, the US Embassy takes the time to measure and tweet the quality of the city’s air on a daily basis. It uses the EPA’s new air-quality index to measure the concentration of PM 2.5, which is of course correspondingly smaller than PM 10 from a device attached to its Chinese Embassy. On the 12th of January, 2013, a particularly bad Saturday in the city, a recording of 886 was measured from a device whose maximum capability is 500. At one point, the device read ‘Beyond Index,’10 an apt description of the situation. In comparison, WHO guidelines recommend levels of this tiny particulate should not exceed 25 micrograms, while the EPA notes any reading above 500 to be hazardous. The impact of such high levels of airborne pollution has wide ranging implications and a person’s health is probably one of the more pressing areas of concern. As such, recent medical studies have linked the poor quality of urban air in China to more than 1.2 million premature deaths across the country in 2010.11

In Delhi, too, extraordinary levels of PM 10 have been frequently recorded. A recent high of 749 micrograms/m3, a score that would make the national cricket team proud, was measured in November last year and reported by The Economist, as more than seven times the governments own prescribed local standard and many times higher, 30 odd in fact, than the WHO guidelines.12 The same article estimates that 10,500 people are killed each year due to the high levels of airborne pollution. Frustrating as it may be for residents, a casual glance on the 18th of April at the government website that publishes real-time data showed a PM 10 twenty-four hour high of 328. Better, but still more than three times the local limit.13

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Diagram of the growing megacapitals in Asia. © Martin Abbott.

Heading east to Jakarta, a sprawling coastal city on the island of Java, the local Environmental Management Agency (EMA) reckons the level of PM10 in the city was around 70 micrograms per cubic meter in 2011, impressively lower than its northern counterparts. According to the Asian Development Bank’s Green Cities report, the annual cost of such high levels of airborne pollution is in the order of US$1 billion.14 Interestingly, quantitative data suggests a correlation between economic growth and particulate matter in the city, substantiated during the financial crisis when the levels of airborne pollution dropped. Right now, both are increasing.

It’s clear the poor quality of air in Beijing, Delhi, and Jakarta is of major environmental concern. In human and political terms, the ramifications are ongoing and cast a dark shadow over the lives of people who must deal with it everyday. But how are people coming to terms with such extreme levels of pollution and are governments making anything better?

In Beijing, affluent schools such as Dulwich College and the International School of Beijing have recently finished constructing enormous plastic domes covering basketball courts and soccer fields with filtration units to protect students and reduce When the fine particulate matter in the air reached 650 micrograms per cubic meter, well into the hazardous range, the measurement inside (the dome) was 25.”15

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Dome at Dulwich College in Beijing. © Courtesy of Dulwich College.

Innovative ideas are emerging, too, in Delhi. Kamal Meattle, who lost a considerable chunk of his lung capacity because of the city’s foul air, began experimenting with plants inside his home in an attempt to improve the quality of air. Along the way he discovered that he could generate more than enough clean air using plants in his home. Since then, he has upscaled the concept to his workplace and increased the number of plants to meet the needs of more people. Using only plants, he now grows fresh air, enough to better the quality of air inside entire commercial buildings. On the other hand, the city government of Jakarta has responded to concerns about traffic related pollution and shut down some city centre streets to traffic on Sundays so as to encourage patronage of public transport and invite pedestrians back into the city.

In human terms, the effects on quality of life can fluctuate enormously. At times when pollution reaches peak levels, people rush out to buy air purifiers,16 designer facemasks and more recently, air pollution apps for their phones to keep track of the latest data readings.17 But it is the rise of respiratory related disease and other ailments caused by such high levels of air pollution that are most troubling. Worried mothers in China are keeping their children inside, in the hope of preventing long-term health issues. The government, who bluntly warn their citizens to avoid exposure to extreme levels, communicates in plain language to remain indoors while airborne pollution levels are high, reinforces this response. Startlingly, of the 57 most polluted cities in the world, 34 or 60% are in Asia.18

Internationally, too, the visual implications of smog and haze that reduce vision has led to airport closures and long flight delays for international travelers. While further afield in Japan, authorities are reporting airborne pollution from China is reaching its shores after traveling hundreds of kilometers across the Sea of Japan, the debilitating effects of which are being overtly registered on pristine island landscapes in the southwest of the country. Even the US is not immune and research published in the academic journal Environmental Science and Technology indicates almost one third of particulate pollution in California originates in Asia.19 It is, however, only somewhat recently that governments have begun to take notice, spurred on by growing political unease. In Beijing, calculations of premature deaths because of outdoor air pollution are politically threatening in the eyes of some Chinese officials.20

It is through good urban policy that government can work to mitigate urban pollution. For example, introducing new regulation to reduce emissions from the transport sector and industry. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India did just that, issuing a directive to Delhi’s bus, auto-rickshaw and taxi fleets to switch to compressed natural gas, so as to limit their impact on the city. A few years later, almost 90,000 vehicles had made the change. Even so, the Government of Delhi no longer allows diesel powered trucks into the city from 6am to 9pm. Furthermore, a modern and reliable underground transport system cuts strategically through the north-south axis of the city, helping to keep a few more cars off the city’s clogged roads. Similar to Delhi, China’s government is in the process of adopting stricter diesel and gasoline fuel standards. And being China, when pollution is bad, government vehicles are sometimes ordered off the roads until the smog clears. In Jakarta, the city government recently announced that construction would begin soon on a new metro-like, rapid transit line through the city in the hope of improving transport in the congested city centre. Incidentally, plans to extend the line have already been brought forward.

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Bus in Delhi. © Courtesy of Martin Abbott.

If better air quality improves life in the city, is it not odd, then, as the incidence of pollution related disease and mortality increases, so too do the number of cars that intensify harmful levels of toxins in the air? And as another billion people come to live in Asia’s cities during the next 30 years or so, spare a thought for the future scale of this serious and ongoing problem. The sheer number of new residents has the potential to exacerbate further already high levels of pollution and place increased strain on a global environment struggling with the effects of climate change. The OECD opines “urban air pollution is set to become the top environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation.” It estimates as many as 3.6 million people could die prematurely from air pollution each year, mostly in China and India. While cleaner air would instantly improve the quality of all urban lives in these cities and reduce the incidence of respiratory disease for example, it seems the political will to do anything at a scale that would have any lasting effect is sadly slow in coming.

Few things are more important than the air we breathe. In the case of Beijing, Delhi and Jakarta, it has been the size, speed and density of at-all-cost development that has caught city governments off guard. The environmental consequences are slowly being felt while they shake the life out of three of the largest cities in the world. Perhaps, fortunately, air does not discern between rich and poor, though indoor air pollution is made worse by a reliance on certain biomass cooking fuels, something only the poor seem to be able to afford. Will this shared environmental reality eventually choke communities and their leaders into action? Unfortunately, it seems likely that the situation will get a lot worse before it gets any better and a suite of long term solutions can be found and implemented. An unwelcome prospect of recent atmospheric measures recently surpassed 400 parts per million, a barrier scientists estimate have not been seen on Earth for at least a few million years.21 If no change is forthcoming, the environment itself might just prevent us from carrying on in the same way. If not, the megacapitals look set for many a long winter of urban discontent.

1 “On-line Data: Urban and Rural Population”, United Nations, Last modified May 4, 2013,
2 In urban terms, density often refers to the number of people in a given area or space of a city. In this instance, it refers more specifically to the scientific definition of the term and the mass of a whole substance. Beijing and Jakarta are not particularly dense cities in terms of people/km2. However, all three cities are home to huge and growing populations that are increasingly expanding the limits of current urban areas.
3 Asian Development Bank, Key indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2012 (Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2012), 3.
4 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects, The 2011 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2012), 13.
5 Girardet, H. 1996 quoted in Lindfield, Michael and Florian Steinberg, Green Cities. (Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2012), 1.
6 Development Research Group, Environment and Energy Team, An Analysis of Various Policy Instruments to Reduce Congestion, Fuel Consumption and CO2 Emissions in Beijing (Washington: World Bank, 2009), 18.
7 K Narayana Kumar, “Daunting traffic scenario: Delhi to come to a standstill in seven years.” The Economic Times, March 13, 2013, accessed May 13, 2013,
8 Andreas Arditya, “City can’t control growth of private vehicle: Official.” The Jakarta Post, March 23, 2011, accessed May 13, 2013,
9 World Health Organisation, Air quality guidelines for particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Global update 2005 – Summary of risk assessment (Geneva: WHO, 2006), 5. Available at:
10 Unknown, “Choked,” The Economist, January 16, 2013, accessed March 15, 2013,
11 Wong, Edward, “Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China,” The New York Times, April 1, 2013, accessed April 6, 2013,
12 Unknown, “Air pollution in India; A Delhi particular” The Economist, November 6, 2012, accessed March 15, 2013,
13 “Real Time Ambient Air Quality Data,” Delhi Pollution Control Committee, Government of N.C.T of Delhi, Last modified April 18, 2013,
14 Lindfield, Michael and Florian Steinberg, Green Cities. (Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2012), 2.
15 Barbara Demick, “Cashing in on China’s air pollution.” The Washington Post, March 2, 2013, accessed March 15th, 2013,
16 Bennett, Dashiell, “Beijing’s Pollution Problem Gets Out of Hand” The Atlantic Wire, January 14, 2013, accessed April 6, 2013,
18 Asian Development Bank, Key indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2012 (Mandaluyong City,Philippines: Asian Development Bank, 2012), 11.
19 Bump, Philip, “China’s Deadly Air Pollution Jumped 30 Percent This Year,” The Atlantic Cities, April 3, 2013, accessed April 6, 2013,
20 Wong, Edward, “Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China,” The New York Times, April 1, 2013, accessed April 6, 2013,
21 “Carbon Dioxide at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory reaches new milestone: Tops 400 ppm,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Research, Last modified:May 13, 2013,