Air quality and decarbonization: how to balance two important issues
15 March 2022 12:43

Air quality and decarbonization: how to balance two important issues

NUR-SULTAN. KAZINFORM Air quality has become an increasingly important topic on Kazakhstan’s environmental agenda. Decarbonization has been too. More about the importance of air quality and its links with decarbonization efforts is in the latest analytical piece of Kazinform.

Improving the environment has been a priority for Kazakhstan that pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The government is carrying out systematic reforms to harmonize environmental legislation per OECD standards and to apply the best green practices.

Why is air quality so important

Air quality has been on this agenda, as well. Addressing the first international ecological congress ECOJER in June 2021 via a message, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev cited the experts’ estimates that poor air quality slows economic growth and may result in 1.5-2 percent annual GDP losses in Kazakhstan.

The air we breathe has multiple ways to affect our lives, health, and future generations. But economic losses are not the only consequences of poor air quality.

According to a 2013 study on human health costs incurred by air pollution, mortality risks attributable to air pollution are about 16,000 cases per year in Kazakhstan. Exposure to air pollution can affect everyone’s health from small disturbances such as coughing or itchy eyes to many diseases involving the lungs and breathing, leading to hospitalizations, cancer, or even premature death. The World Bank research published in December 2021 noted that every year, 6,000 to 9,360 people in Kazakhstan are dying prematurely due to poor air quality.

How air quality is measured

One of the key indicators to measure air quality is the concentration of particulate matter (PM), which is a common air pollutant. There are two types of particulate matter used to analyze air quality - fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 µm or PM2.5 and coarse particles with a diameter of less than 10 µm or PM10. Experts note that PM2.5 particles pose a greater risk due to their small size because they can penetrate the respiratory tract deeper reaching the blood system.

The World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines recommend that the annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 5 µg/m3, while 24-hour average exposures should not exceed 15 µg/m 3 more than 3 - 4 days per year.

In Kazakhstan, where nearly 70 percent of electricity is generated from coal, PM2.5 is 4.4 times more than the WHO recommended guidelines. The main sources of urban air pollutants are stationary types of thermal power stations, boilers, motor vehicle emissions, construction sites, cement works, and asphalt plants.

According to the results of environmental monitoring in 2021 conducted by the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources, the cities of Temirtau, Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Aktobe, Atyrau, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Karaganda, Balkhash, Zhezkazgan, and Shymkent are characterized by high levels of air pollution.

According to the real-time Air Quality Index, the air quality in Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan is currently moderate, which means «air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants, there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.»

The available data also indicates that Almaty has consistently high levels of air pollution.

In Kazakhstan, however, air quality measurement methodology requires improvement, according to environmental scientist and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering Nassiba Baimatova.

Kazakhstan uses only emissions inventory to determine the sources of pollution, which is not sufficient and which uses outdated methods.

«Even if the emissions inventory is done correctly, the results of the inventory are presented as gross emissions (sum of PM, PM10, NO2, SO2, CO). The use of the sum of pollutants seems very unclear, and much of the information remains hidden and does not provide enough information to track trends and take effective action. The toxicity of each pollutant is not taken into account. For example, according to the WHO, PM2.5 is the most common proxy indicator of air pollution, with PM2.5 affecting more people than any other pollutant. However, when all emissions are added up, the data on the contribution of the sources of the most dangerous pollutants, such as PM2.5, remains hidden,» she wrote in her Telegram channel.

She compares Kazakhstan’s methodology to that used in the European Union that uses air quality source-oriented models (SMs) in estimating contributions of sources to particulate matter, which she believes is more efficient.

How decarbonization is linked to air quality?

Experts say that balancing decarbonization efforts with air quality management can be a challenging task because the two might require opposing approaches despite having a common goal. The outcomes of climate change policies, however, can have a positive impact on air quality by a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions alone. In addition to that, most air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are largely generated from fuel combustion or industrial processes.

But some decarbonization policies that are aimed at decarbonization of energy consumption including through biomass combustion and other biofuels, can increase PM emissions.

«International experience shows that the least-cost decarbonization and air pollution reduction strategies often differ in prioritizing pollutants, emission sources, and interventions. Pursued in isolation, climate policies may lead to a temporary increase in air pollution while air pollution policies alone can lock in carbon-intensive assets. Therefore, an integrated approach is needed to achieve the two objectives and to better understand interlinks—both synergies and trade-offs—between priority actions to rapidly improve air quality and to facilitate long-term decarbonization, particularly for the most polluted cities,» said World Bank experts in their December report.

Kazakhstan’s measures to promote air quality

Kazakhstan’s pledge to carbon neutrality is only part of a broader effort. Kazakhstan also committed under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 15 percent and up to 25 percent by 2030 as compared to the base year of 1990. The government’s data indicates the actual volume of emissions in 2021 was 2.4 million tons, which is 6 percent lower than in 2020.

The new Environmental Code which came into effect on July 1, 2021, also introduces mechanisms that help minimize harm to the air quality.

One of the key novelties is the polluter pays principle, a commonly accepted practice where the biggest polluters bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment. The code determines the country’s 50 biggest polluters.

Another novelty is the management of payments to the local budget as a pollution charge from the industries and factories. If previously, these payments were used by akimats to finance their needs and only 45 of them were intended for environmental purposes, the Environmental Code now requires 100 percent of the charges to be used to finance the measures aimed at improving the local environment, including air quality.

«Basic ambient air quality standards have been established and are mandatory, although their levels and definitions need to be aligned with international best practices and enforced. Institutions at different levels of the government are responsible for air quality, yet allocation of responsibilities and institutional capacities require improvement. There is also a growing body of research and scientific capacity at Kazakhstan’s universities to support policymakers in their actions on the ground,» said World Bank experts.

Though it might be challenging for the country to balance its decarbonization efforts with air quality management, they offer some cost-effective solutions, for example, reducing emissions from the management of solid waste as well as from space heating in the residential and commercial sectors, both in the country’s urban and rural areas.

«These include measures to refurbish thermal efficiency of buildings, switch from coal to gas and district heating, and modernize the remaining solid fuel boilers and stoves with more efficient and less polluting ones. Due to their direct impact on population exposure, these measures appear to be much more cost-effective in reducing the health hazard of air pollution than some of the conventional emission control measures on visible point sources, such as end-of-pipe emission controls at large power stations and industrial installations,» said experts.

Overall, it also requires a general improvement of air quality and climate mitigation policies and institutions, including more comprehensive and better data on air quality.

Written by Assel Satubaldina