The international community is slowly making progress on air and water pollution. The new Sustainable Development Goals include a target where countries will substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution by 2030. Particulate matter in Beijing fell more than 15 percent in the first half of 2015, compared with a year earlier, thanks in large part to China’s “war on pollution," including a new air monitoring sys¬tem in dozens of Chinese cities. And this past April, the World Bank announced a Pollution Management and Environmental Health (PMEH) program, including a $45 million dollar fund to address high-priority pollution issues in China, Egypt, India, Nigeria and South Africa.

While this concerted effort to take high-level, international action to address pollution is commendable, it remains a question if these efforts are enough to end pollution in the next 20 years, as a campaign launched by the World Bank and others calls for. Pollution remains one of the most difficult and complex problems for developing countries to address comprehensively. Solving this challenge will require more than the adoption of top-down solutions or greener technology—it will require countries to address governance challenges.

Pollution Is Also a Governance Problem

At the heart of this governance issue is citizens’ abilities to access information. Poor access to pollution information means people don’t have basic information about what’s in the air and water their communities depend on. Without information, the public’s ability to participate in key decision-making processes—such as siting of industries and monitoring and regulation of pollutants—is limited. So is their ability to demand accountability from their government and industries.

The United States is one country that does provide citizens with access to pollution information through its Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which tracks corporations’ use of more than 650 toxic chemicals and pollution prevention activities. By proactively disclosing this information, citizens can get a better sense of what pollutants facilities are releasing, and can protect themselves from potential side effects or even protest their use. There are numerous studies indicating that TRI influences facility releases, provides opportunities for companies to comprehensively take into account pollution figures, and offers regulators the space to use the data to focus on particular chemicals or facilities.

However, only a small number of countries have adopted this approach or other broader approaches to release information about pollution from corporations.

Giving More Power to the People

WRI’s Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment (STRIPE) project examines issues of air and water pollution in Indonesia and Mongolia. We’ve found that part of solving governance issues—and the air and water pollution problems they create—involves taking a bottom-up approach. Community members want better access to specific environmental information about the local industries in their communities, and solutions for addressing the pollution impacts. We have found in both countries that:

  1. There are multiple benefits for governments, industry and communities in the support of Right to Know Programs.
  2. Significant investment is still needed to expand International and national efforts to ensure environmental information is able to reach local people. National Governments need to support the capacity of local agencies to release locally relevant environmental information to communities in forms that can be easily understood in order to enable people to protect themselves from air and water pollution.
  3. Community members face significant challenges engaging government officials over their concerns, and many requirements surrounding consultation processes on siting, assessment of impacts and monitoring of industry are not being well implemented. Expanded and more effective participation forums are needed to foster dialogue among local community residents, company representations and local government officials.

It is only when governments understand the benefits to releasing pollution information for government, industry, and the public that true pathways for accountability can be built. This type of approach places the people harmed by environmental degradation at its center, and provides a path to prioritizing rights that help shift the balance of power between people, corporations and the government. To end pollution, we need bottom-up approaches that address governance challenges to be central to national and international initiatives.

  • LEARN MORE: Check out the below infographic for more information on how WRI's STRIPE project enhances access to information to reduce air and water pollution.


Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.