What was Asia's word of 2015? It would be hard to see passed "smog". Residents of Beijing and Shanghai are by now wearily familiar with miserable air quality, regularly suffering pollution far above levels considered healthy for human breathing. But this year they were surpassed by New Delhi in India, which is now viewed as having the worst air of any major global city. Alarm over pollution has risen elsewhere in South Asia, with all 10 of the world's most polluted metropolises now located in either India or Pakistan, according to the World Health Organization. Other places have struggled too, notably in Singapore and Malaysia, which were blanketed by weeks of dense smog, caused by smoke from forest fires wafting over from Indonesia.
The growth of gas in India
2016 is likely to see a raft of clean-up measures, as anxious governments respond to public anger over declining environmental standards. The effect of air pollution in Asian megacities will be felt more broadly, shaping the way in which the region’s economies develop new policies affecting their industrialization and energy use. With IEA projections showing emerging Asia as overwhelmingly the most important source of new global energy demand over the coming 3 decades, this is bound to have important consequences for the world's energy system. In many ways it should be positive. Political leaders will find it easier to make the case for shifting from dirtier fossil fuels like coal to cleaner alternatives like gas. This is especially important in a country like India, whose economy is relatively non-gas intensive, and where energy experts are pushing greater gas use as an important component of the country’s changing energy mix. After December's climate change agreement in Paris, air pollution will also be one of the most important ways to justify investments in renewable energy.
Agricultural waste and dust at the base of pollution
Not all of this is immediately logical, of course. It is not clear, for instance, that Asia’s pollution problems are always linked directly to the burning of fossil fuels. Much of Beijing's smog does seem to be caused by pollutants from coal-burning power stations, alongside energy intensive industries like steel. In India, though, New Delhi's problems have as much to do with the burning of agricultural waste and dust from badly-run construction sites as they do with belching diesel-fuelled trucks and exhaust fumes from cars on packed motorways. Even so, the most visible mechanisms introduced to improve air quality will focus on cars, and thus implicitly on the fuel they burn. After months of dreadful pollution during the second half of this year, a court in New Delhi compared the city to living in a "gas chamber". In response, a government environmental body introduced a temporary ban on registrations for new diesel cars. If that becomes permanent, or if it spreads to other cities, it will have a big impact on both fuel use and fuel imports, given that 1/3 of cars sold in India are diesel powered.
Alternate number plates in New Delhi
Even more striking was the launch in early January of a temporary emergency experiment to ban half of New Delhi’s 9 million registered vehicles each day, by imposing restrictions based on their number plates. Similar emergency anti-smog measures have been tried in other major cities, including Athens and Mexico City. Evidence on their effectiveness is mixed. Some studies suggest they can curb pollution, at least initially. Others are more doubtful, pointing to perverse incentives, in which wealthy residents buy two cars, or evade penalties by using forged number plates. At the very least such measures are best viewed as a temporary step to a longer term solution, which is likely to involve investment in better public transport to provide an alternative to car driving - something that is unlikely to happen in India soon. China's government has put particular emphasis on cleaner fuels, offering subsidies on domestically-produced electric cars, with sales expected to jump over the next few years. Other measures have targeted older coal power stations, or attempted to regulate construction more closely. Either way, it is clear that 2015’s year of hazardous air means Asia’s future debates about pollution on the one hand, and energy use on the other, are now inextricably linked.