Air pollution is a global environmental and health problem. Air pollution is involved in a large range of preventable diseases, such as asthma, cardiovascular pathologies and some types of cancer (Pope et al., 2002). According to WHO (2016), it plays a direct role in 4.2 million death worldwide each year. Urban dwellers in the Global South bear most this burden: Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) countries account for 90 % of the mortality associated with ambient air pollution. Current trends and forecasts are not encouraging: while progress is being made at fast pace in some emerging countries such as China, the situation is worsening in a large majority of cities in Africa, South Asia and South East Asia.

Air pollution is therefore becoming a pressing health, economic and social threat in the Global South. This public health threat is deeply interwoven with the way public authorities plan and manage cities. In recent years, the gap between high-income countries and LMICs has widened regarding the management of air pollution issues. In the Global North, where air pollution has been on the policy agenda since the 1960s (Crenson, 1971 ; Knöpfel and Weidner, 1982 ; Charvolin et al. 2015), major improvements have occurred during the past three decades, although hazardous air quality remains a concern in many cities. Improved scientific knowledge, better emission monitoring, infrastructure investments and more stringent regulatory norms and standards have led to a very substantial decrease in air pollution compared with the 1970s (Cohen et al. 2017; EEA 2018). More recently, China - a country where the death toll attributed to ambient air pollution exceeded one million persons a year in the mid-2000s - managed to lower substantially toxic emissions levels as well. Starting in 2013, a national “Action Plan” was set to reduce the concentration of fine particles in the most urbanized regions. Within three years, it had succeeded in curbing emissions by around 20 % in most regions (Zheng et al. 2017). In stark contrast with these successful policy measures, 97% of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants in LMICs do not comply with WHO air quality guidelines (Shaddick et al. 2020). International media cover now Delhi’s seasonal smog on a yearly basis. Although emblematic, Delhi is far from unique in a country where twelve cities ranked among the top 14 most polluted cities in the world. Beyond India, heavy air pollution has become widespread in every major city of Africa, South Asia and South East Asia. In most cases, emissions and population exposure to the main harmful pollutants (NOx, PM, SO2) are increasing.

This situation results from the conjunction of rapid population growth, economic development and poorly managed urbanization (GBD 2018). Africa’s urban population will triple by 2050, to 1.3 billion. With limited public transport infrastructure, this will result in a fleet of individual vehicles multiplied by four or five according to some analysts (FIT 2019). Most of these vehicles will be, as they are today, imported second-hand vehicles that do not comply with reinforced EU or US pollution prevention policies and standards. The current practice of using low-quality fuels that plagues many African countries, if continued, will make the situation worse. Because of the current trends, toxic emissions are expected to increase by 78% for NOx, 136% for SO4 and 136% for PM2.5 in 2050 (FIT 2019). The mean exposure to PM10 in Lagos, Dakar and Cairo, is already much higher than in Beijing or even Mumbai (WHO, 2018). In some Asian countries, rapid motorization has negated the efforts of air pollution abatement policies (Hirota, 2010: 147). However, private motorized transport is not the sole culprit.

Poorly regulated polluting industries, poorly monitored construction activities, the common use of fuel-based power generators, waste incineration in the open air and, in some cases, agricultural burnings in rural hinterland, also contribute to ambient air pollution in LMIC cities (MacGranahan and Murray 2003, Schwela 2012). In addition to polluting indoor air, the burning of wood and charcoal for household cooking also contributes to the degradation of ambient air. Because of its heavy adverse health effects, the toll of air pollution on the economy is considerable: the World Bank estimates the cost of premature mortality alone to 7% of GDP for Asia, and 4% for Africa every year (including indoor air pollution – World Bank, 2016). But there are other consequences, for instance on the tourism sector in Thailand – evaluated at 1.5 billion dollars by the government (Evrard and Mostafanezhad, 2019) or the adverse impact of Delhi’s smog on its international attractiveness for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

By all accounts, the situation is alarming. But despite the alerts raised by scientists and international organizations such as WHO or UNEP, public policies aimed at improving urban air quality remain underdeveloped or ineffective in a majority of Global South cities. Even when these policies do exist and objectives are set, numerous obstacles hinder the implementation processes. This “inconsistent policy making” (Künzli et al., 2015) is not fully understood because the literature has not taken up the question: “whereas research tackles the question of inequity of exposure to air pollution within cities and countries, policy discrepancies between countries are not much discussed” (ibid). Indeed, the knowledge on ambient air contamination sources, population exposure, effects on health and the environment has tremendously improved over the past twenty years, but this progress has hardly been matched by similar advancement in our understanding of how the issue is concretely conceptualized and addressed on the policy side. Therefore, answering the question of why governments and local authorities do not simply “listen to the science” is crucial in any effort to improve the situation.

This project has been designed with this scientific challenge in view. Its core objective is to identify and explain the technical, social and political processes that negatively or positively influence the management of air pollution, and through this study to improve the theoretical and practical knowledge on urban and multilevel public policy processes in the Global South. The underpinning hypothesis is that the issue of air pollution undergoes, in every local context, a complex process of translation, appropriation and reshaping that defines its political salience, the favored mode of policy action and instruments, and the balance with other priorities. Working with the tools of the sociology of science, urban geography, political anthropology and the sociology of policy-making, researchers involved in this project will explore the social construction of ambient air pollution both as a global and as local issue, the way it is embedded in socio-technical representations of health, the environment and the economy. With this specific knowledge in hand, they will highlight the processes through which the issue of air pollution circulates but also how it is apprehended and addressed according to specific local configurations.

Research Objectives

Objective 1 | To better understand the role of international cooperation and globalization processes for the framing of air pollution issues and circulation of knowledge

Objective 2 | To better understand the interplay between scientific knowledge and policy in the context of the Global South

Objective 3 | To explain and analyse the local social processes of issue framing and agenda setting around ambient air pollution in LMIC cities

Objective 4 | To analyse cross-sectoral policy making in the context of large LMIC cities

Objective 5 | To formulate policy recommendations in order to foster better policymaking and implementation for the cities of the Global South

Work Packages

WP1 | Air pollution as a Global Health issue

Aim: To understand the role of international cooperation and globalization processes for the framing of air pollution issues and circulation of knowledge.

  • Task 1.1 Issue framing and global organizations: the WHO case

  • Task 1.2 Analysing cooperation dynamics in Asia on air pollution

  • Task 1.3 Analysing cooperation dynamics in Africa on air pollution

WP2 | Air quality as knowledge: Politics of data

Aim: To understand the interplay between scientific knowledge and policy in the context of the Global South cities.

  • Task 2.1 Mapping air quality and epidemiological surveillance systems

  • Task 2.2 Analysing public authorities air quality monitoring systems

  • Task 2.3 Analysing the rise of low-cost air quality monitoring systems

WP3 | Social mobilizations and issue construction: Air pollution as a public health crisis

Aim: To explain and analyse the local social processes of issue framing and agenda setting around ambient air pollution in LMIC cities.

  • Task 3.1 A sociology of social mobilization on air pollution

  • Task 3.2 Media coverage and framing of air pollution as a public health crisis

  • Task 3.3 The role of the judiciary system

WP4 | Air pollution and city governance: exploring multilevel governance of emissions sources

Aim: To analyse the complexities of cross-sectoral policy making in the context of large LMIC cities.

  • Task 4.1 Mobility and transportation

  • Task 4.2 The regulation of air polluting industries

  • Task 4.3 The political ecology of burnings