• Environmentally Sustainable Design
08/11/2023 eco-mantra

Breathing Better: How Emission Control Can Improve Air Quality

Case Studies & Lesson from Five Cities

Date Published: November 8th, 2023

Written by: Annisa Sabran, edited by Irvan Tadaru, Mubashir Moqeem

How to Tackle Air Pollution for Clean Air?

Air pollution is a serious threat to human health and the environment. It can cause respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems, low birth weight, stunted growth, and premature death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 90% of the world’s population lives in areas where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits 1. In Jakarta, one of the most polluted cities in the world, air pollution is responsible for 8,700 deaths and $2.3 billion USD in economic losses in 2023 2.   

Many people are wondering why the air quality is so poor, what can be done to fight air pollution, who is responsible for ensuring clean air as a human right, and what role the government, private sector and individuals can play in achieving cleaner air.  

The causes of poor air quality are complex and varied, but they mainly include emissions from power plants, industries, vehicles, waste burning, and household cooking. To address these sources of pollution, different cities have adopted different strategies and measures that suit their local contexts and challenges.   

Global case studies  

In this article, we will look at how five cities – Singapore, Helsinki, Beijing, Seoul and Bangkok – are keeping their air clean and what we can learn from them. 

1. Singapore: A Clean and Green City  

Singapore is a small island nation with limited natural resources and a high population density. Despite these constraints, Singapore has managed to achieve high standards of air quality through a vision of becoming a clean and green city. This vision was articulated by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the 1960s and translated into action through various policies and programs.  

Some of the key initiatives that Singapore has implemented to minimize air pollution include:  

  • Creating an Anti-Pollution Unit, a Singapore Green Plan 2012, a Singapore Master Plan approved in 1958, a Code of Practice on Pollution Control and a Clean Air Act 1971.
  • Adopting a strategy of integrated urban and industrial planning, along with development control, to prevent incompatible land uses and reduce exposure to pollutants.  
  • Enacting legislation and strict enforcement programs to regulate emissions from various sources such as power plants, industries, vehicles and open burning.  
  • Establishing a network of air quality monitoring stations to measure and report the levels of pollutants in the ambient air.  
  • Promoting public awareness and education on the causes and effects of air pollution and the actions that individuals can take to reduce their impact.  

As a result of these efforts, Singapore’s air quality is comparable to cities in the United States and Europe, with a Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in the ‘Good’ and ‘Moderate’ range in 2022.

Singapore cityscape with Gardens by the Bay and lush surrounding trees, exemplifying emissions control

2. Helsinki: A Nordic Leader in Air Quality  

Helsinki is the capital and largest city of Finland, a Nordic country with a cold climate and long winters. Despite these conditions, Helsinki has achieved good levels of air quality through a combination of national and local measures that target the main sources of pollution such as wood burning, traffic and street dust.  

Some of the key initiatives that Helsinki has implemented to improve air quality include:  

  • Participating in Finland’s National Air Pollution Control Program 2030, which aims to reduce emissions from various sectors such as energy production, industry, transport and agriculture.
  • Developing an Air Quality Action Plan that complies with EU air quality legislation.  
  • Using low-emission vehicles and fuels such as electric buses, hybrid cars and biofuels in public transport and municipal fleets.  
  • Supporting low-emission energy production such as wind power, solar power and district heating from waste incineration or biomass.  
  • Encouraging the development of cleaner fireplaces that reduce emissions from wood burning in residential buildings.  
  • Applying active dust suppression and efficient street washing methods to reduce the amount of dust generated by traffic and construction activities.  

As a result of these efforts, Helsinki’s air quality meets the EU standards for most pollutants and is among the best in Europe.  

Helsinki city showing the Helsinki Cathedral, blue sky, and ocean

3. Beijing: A War Against Pollution  

Beijing is the capital and political center of China, a country with a large population and a fast-growing economy. However, Beijing also faces severe challenges from air pollution that affects not only its residents but also its international reputation. In 2013, Beijing experienced a record-breaking episode of smog that was dubbed as the “airpocalypse” by the media. 

In response to this crisis, the Chinese government launched a national air pollution action plan that invested billions of dollars into new regulations, nationwide air monitoring stations, and the closure of coal mines and coal plants.   

Some of the key initiatives that Beijing has implemented to combat air pollution include:  

  • Enforcing strong emission standards and control technologies for power plants and major industries such as steel, cement and petrochemicals.  
  • Eliminating coal-based heating in urban areas and replacing it with district heating, gas or electricity.  
  • Promoting the use of electric vehicles, public transport and non-motorized transport such as bicycles.  
  • Enhancing the capacity and efficiency of natural gas supply and distribution networks.  
  • Increasing the share of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro power in the energy mix.  
  • Implementing afforestation and greening projects to increase the vegetation cover and improve the microclimate.  

As a result of these efforts, Beijing’s air quality has improved significantly in recent years, with a 35% reduction in PM2.5 concentrations from 2013 to 2017.

Beijing with tall buildings, bustling traffic, and trees along the road

4. Seoul: A Partnership for Cleaner Air  

Seoul is the capital and largest city of South Korea, a country with a high level of economic development and technological innovation. However, Seoul also suffers from poor air quality due to its geographical location and meteorological conditions. To address this challenge, Seoul has adopted a comprehensive and collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders. In particular, Seoul has established a partnership with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to conduct research and share best practices on improving air quality in the region.

Some of the key initiatives that Seoul has implemented to enhance air quality include:  

  • Participating in the Clean Air Conservation Act and the National Fine Dust Reduction Plan that aim to reduce emissions from various sources such as power plants, industries, vehicles and biomass burning.
  • Banning diesel cars from all public sector and mass transit fleets by 2025 and providing subsidies for scrapping old diesel vehicles and replacing them with electric or hybrid vehicles.  
  • Introducing congestion pricing and car-free days to discourage private car use and encourage alternative modes of transport.  
  • Implementing urban greening projects such as rooftop gardens, vertical gardens and urban forests to improve the urban landscape and microclimate.  

As a result of these efforts, Seoul’s air quality has shown some improvement in recent years, with a 20% reduction in PM2.5 concentrations from 2016 to 2020.

A picture of Seoul city featuring tall buildings, mountains, and a pink sky in the background.

5. Bangkok: A Green Vision for the Future   

Bangkok is the capital and most populous city of Thailand, a country with a rich culture and a vibrant tourism industry. However, Bangkok also faces serious problems from air pollution that affects its residents’ health and its attractiveness as a destination.  

Some of the key initiatives that Bangkok has implemented to realize its green vision include:  

  • Opening eleven new parks in the first phase of the project, covering an area of 1.3 million square meters.  
  • Developing a 15-kilometer greenway along the Chao Phraya River that connects various attractions such as temples, museums and markets.
  • Installing solar panels on public buildings such as schools, hospitals and government offices.  
  • Providing free electric shuttle buses and boats for commuters and tourists.  
  • Enforcing stricter emission standards for vehicles and industries.  

As a result of these efforts, Bangkok’s air quality is expected to improve in the coming years, with a target of reducing PM2.5 concentrations by 35% by 2030.

Nighttime view of Bangkok with city lights

How Eco Mantra Can Help You Improve Your Project’s Microclimate, Air Quality, and Emission Reduction

Air pollution is not only a problem for cities but also for individual projects such as buildings, resorts, hotels, apartments, villas or private residences. The design and operation of these projects can have a significant impact on the microclimate and air quality of their surroundings and their occupants. Therefore, it is important to adopt environmentally sustainable design (ESD) principles that can help reduce emissions, improve efficiency and enhance comfort.  

Eco Mantra is a company based in Bali, Indonesia, with a passion for sustainable development and environmental engineering. Our mission is to rethink the way we design and build our environments in order to harmonize them with nature. We offer a wide range of services for companies and leaders at any stage of the sustainability journey, from consulting and auditing to design and engineering.  

If you are interested in implementing ESD in your project, please contact us at team@eco-mantra.com. We will be happy to assist you with our expertise and experience. Together, we can create a greener future for ourselves and our planet. 


A City of Green Possibilities

Air quality in Singapore

First update of the national air pollution control program 2030

A week in smog-bound Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’

A review of 20 Years’ Air Pollution Control in Beijing

UNEP partners with local Korean governments to combat air pollution

Achieving clean air for blue skies in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi, Republic of Korea

Air Quality Change in Seoul, South Korea under COVID-19 Social Distancing: Focusing on PM2.5

Chao Phraya River

Air pollution is choking Bangkok, but a solution is in reach

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