D(air) to dream of a cleaner future for your city

In 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) made recommendations for Kazakhstan to improve how it raises awareness on air pollution and alerts the public of high pollution levels, including by involving citizen science. Since, 49 LED screens have lit up across Almaty, displaying air quality data drawing from citizens.

In early 2017, Pavel Plotitsyn, an IT expert from Kazakhstan, stepped onto the balcony of his new apartment in Almaty, to enjoy a panoramic view of the ancient city. Instead, he saw a sky thick with smog.

“When I wanted to bring fresh air into my flat, it smelt like someone was burning rubber,” he recalls.

Plotitsyn decided to take matters into his own hands. He ordered affordable air quality monitoring devices online and installed one on his balcony. He published his readings of PM2.5 particulate matter — tiny particles that can reach people’s lungs and lead to premature death — on social media.

“The numbers were really shocking,” he says. “In parts of the city, levels of PM2.5 could easily top 300μg/m3 for several consecutive days in winter”. The maximum safe limit recommended by the World Health Organisation is 25μg/m3.

Soon, friends and neighbours asked Plotitsyn for help in installing devices for their homes, with readings published on the website. When pollution levels passed safe thresholds, sensors were marked in red.Today, 25 sensors are in place across Almaty, with more covering five other cities in the country, and thousands of people check Airkaz.org daily.

“Pavel’s story shows how citizen science can spark a nationwide conversation on air quality. By shining a torchlight on air pollution types and where it is found, we can identify solutions. Through our office in Almaty, UNEP stands ready to support the city on its transition to clean air,” said Bruno Pozzi, UNEP Europe Office Director.

Raising awareness

After having certified 10 of the devices for Almaty, Kazakhstan’s national hydrometeorological body, Kazhydromet, now uses the readings along with the official data it collects through the national air quality monitoring network. The service even launched an app for the public, which includes findings from the citizen-led network and displays information on the effects of air pollution on human health. 

Together with Kazhydromet data sourced from its 16 state-owned monitoring stations across the city, data collected from the citizens’ devices now feeds into 49 LED screens set up across Almaty by the mayor, Bakytzhan Sagintayev, in June. The screens display real-time levels of PM 2.5, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and phenol.

“Air quality monitoring data is being shown on LED screens across Almaty. Data from sensors located in different parts of the city is updated and processed by Kazhydromet. This project will increase Almaty residents’ awareness of the quality of their urban environment,” says Mr Sagintayev.

Plans to clear the air

The main sources of air pollution in Almaty are emissions from a coal power plant, intense traffic and an ageing fleet of cars, made worse by mountains and buildings blocking wind flows. In response, Almaty is now looking at modernizing its thermal power plant; and 250,000 trees are being planted this year  — to reach a total of one million new trees by 2022. The city is also putting 400 gas buses, and 10 electric ones, on the road, and has expanded its bicycle lane network to reach 110km in length, with plans to reach 300km.

Upon the mayor’s initiative, parts of the city will be closed off to cars on weekends. The impact of this was demonstrated during the city’s COVID-19 lockdown this spring – reduction in road traffic led to a 21 per cent drop in PM2.5 levels, bringing pollution levels below WHO limits on some days, research suggests.

Power of citizen science

In 2019, UNEP’s Europe Office led the environmental monitoring chapter of Kazakhstan’s 3rd Environmental Performance Review, put together by the UN Environment Commission for Europe. It was recommended that the country alert citizens of high pollution levels, including by involving citizen science and billboards.

Today, not only is citizen-led data making its way onto screens across Almaty – it is also feeding into some of the world’s largest air quality data houses, such as the AirVisual and Urban Air Action platforms.

“Every family in Almaty seems to include someone suffering from an allergy linked to air pollution,” Pavel laments. “I started doing this as a weekend hobby. But it isn’t just a fun project anymore. Hopefully, it can help change the situation here one day”.

7 September marks the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. Nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe air deemed to be unsafe by the World Health Organisation.

UN Environment