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Asian Governments Pledge to Fight Air Pollution

Government leaders from around Asia have pledged to boost air quality control programs in some of the most polluted cities of the world. As Chad Bouchard reports from the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, widespread urban smog threatens economic growth and is blamed for more than a half-million premature deaths each year.

Poor emissions controls and the expanding use of outdated technology are spreading a scourge of smog in many of Asia's megacities.

And Asia's booming economic growth means more factories and vehicles polluting the air.

The World Health Organization estimates more than 530,000 people in Southeast Asia and Pacific countries die prematurely from respiratory diseases connected to air pollution, such as asthma and pneumonia.

This week, 20 Asian countries took the first steps in a cooperative effort to stem airborne pollution.

During a three-day Better Air Quality Conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, the governments signed a pact that experts say is a critical step toward healthier cities and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Asia.

Cornie Huizenga is the head of Secretariat for the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, which held the summit.

"The potential amount of emissions is increasing rapidly," Huizenga said. "Vehicle fleets are doubling about every five years. So - but fortunately, technologies (are) available - cleaner vehicles, cleaner fuels, etc. So there is a way out. And that's what we have been propagating is that countries need to jump on the bandwagon and adopt strategies for cleaner fuels cleaner vehicles etc."

Auto production in India has increased by 20 percent a year since 2000, and China's vehicle fleet is eight times larger than it was a decade ago.

The number of motorcycles in Indonesia has doubled over the past five years to 33 million.

Huizenga says governments once regarded efforts to contain air pollution as harmful to economic growth. But a recent Asian Development Bank study shows that coping with the damage from air pollution can cost two to four percent of gross domestic product.

Though the group's new agreement is not binding, Huizenga says the summit indicates there is a growing commitment to improving air quality.

"I think it's encouraging first of all that a meeting was held," Huizenga said. "Secondly that countries agreed to the development of a long-term vision on air quality in Asia - and that they expressed their willingness to consider about 15 or 20 different strategies to increase urban air quality on an a more immediate and a short-term basis."

Huizenga says the summit should pave the way for more cooperation over emissions standards and pollution that crosses borders.