Key Asian cities face serious problems with air pollution which if left unresolved could cost the region billions of dollars annually in health costs and lost economic output, experts said yesterday.
Air quality in several Asian cities such as Jakarta and Manila does not meet standards set by the World Health Organization and two-thirds of the 800,000 people who die globally from air pollution every year are from the region, they said.
"If we do not do anything at all, there will be people who die prematurely from air pollution," said Supat Wangwongwatana, chairperson of the Clean Air Initiative (CAI) for Asian cities.
"Governments will have to spend a lot of money for the medical care to cure the people who suffer from the illnesses caused by air pollution," he told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting to explore ways to combat the problem.
If nothing is done, the costs will run into "billions of dollars."
The next step for CAI is to engage in a dialogue with the transport sector, the biggest source of air pollution in Asia, he said.
The CAI, a project launched in 2001 by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank, is holding a one-day dialogue meeting here with key players from the oil industry who have agreed to work with the Manila-based body to address the problem.
The oil companies in a statement expressed full support for the CAI-initiated dialogue to address air pollution.
"Air quality is impacted by emissions from a number of varied sources but we recognize that the rapid growth in mobility in Asia has contributed to an increase in emissions in many cities and that the expected, continued growth in number of vehicles will further add to the problem," the statement said.
The oil companies, among them global heavyweights Royal Dutch/Shell, Chevron Texaco and Exxonmobil, said they "are committed to working with key stakeholders, including governments" to try to resolve the problem.
Michael Walsh, principal technical consultant for the ADB's regional project to cut motor vehicle emissions, said the problem facing Asia was serious given that at least 500,000 people die from exposure to urban outdoor air pollution.
"Just about every major city in the region has a significant air pollution problem," Walsh said.
Air pollution in Asia has got worse in recent years due to urbanization and a growing middle class which aspires to own vehicles to match their new social status.
"There is still a very large unsatisfied demand among households and individuals who would like to buy a motorcycle or a car once they can afford it," the ADB said.
"Most cities in Asia do not have adequate plans to improve public transportation to a level that will convince vehicle owners to use public transport more frequently instead of using a car or a motorcycle."