The Health Effects Institute (HEI), a Boston-based non-profit organization that specializes in studying health effects as a result of pollution, recently published its “State of Global Air, 2017: A Special Report on Global Exposure to Air Pollution and its Disease Burden.” Based on extensive research conducted across 175 countries, HEI found that India and China face the deadliest air pollution in the world.
The study reveals that air pollution has caused over 4.2 million early deaths across the globe in 2015, out of which India and China alone accounted for 25.7 percent and 26.1 percent respectively. HEI focuses on two measures of outdoor air pollution in their Global Burden of Disease Project: ambient fine particulate matter (airborne particles less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or PM2.5) and ozone, a reactive gas. These are the most widely studied and monitored air pollutants worldwide, with PM2.5 responsible for the vast majority of early deaths (4.2 million, compared to 254,000 attributed to ozone).
In India, rapid industrialization and population growth have adversely affected urban climates, particularly air quality, and caused imbalances in the regional climate at large. As per a study conducted by the World Health Organization, half of world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India.
There are several reasons for the alarming increase in air pollution. The total vehicles sold in India have increased by over 273 percent since 2000. The exposure to vehicle exhaust has led to a significant increase in respiratory symptoms, cancer, and lung function impairments. Unfortunately, India has yet to come out with a definite roadmap for setting emission standards throughout the country.
India and Bangladesh have experienced the steepest increases in pollution since 2010, and now have the highest PM2.5 concentrations in the world. In India, the air pollution has gone beyond safe exposure levels and, in some of Indian cities, has led to a steep increase in premature deaths.
China has recorded the highest number of deaths as a result of pollution, but by declaring air pollution a national disaster they have taken several steps to control the damage. China has thus been able to reduce the death rate by 2 percent. However, in India, over the same period, deaths have gone up by 1.4 percent. Globally, there was a 60 percent increase in ozone-attributable deaths, with a striking 67 percent of this increase occurring in India. Ozone-related deaths have gone up by 148 percent in India, while China saw an increase of only 0.41 percent.
It is here that India can learn from the Chinese experience. Recently, many big cities in China were faced with the problem of choking smog. In Beijing, the concentration of fine particulate matter reached 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the WHO. China has taken some strong measure since then to control air pollution. As China burns half of the coal consumed in the world, it has now set limits on the burning of coal and is transitioning to lower emission coal burning technologies. The dust concentration by the coal-burning boilers in thermal power plants has been reduced from 30 milligrams per cubic meter to 20 milligrams per cubic meter. China has also taken high-polluting vehicles, those registered before the end of 2005, off the roads. In a significant step, Beijing has also directed steel and cement manufacturing units to cut down on their production — a move driven primarily by a global surplus in those materials, but with the beneficial side effect of a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities.
China has also taken measures to restrict traffic flow during periods of heavy pollution. This, coupled with cloud seeding for clearing the smog, especially in Beijing, has had an impact. The State Council has directed officials to treat heavy pollution as a natural disaster and has directed local governments to enact emergency management response measures during periods of heavy pollution. The State Council has also been directed not to grant loans to industries that have not passed the environmental assessment system. Those projects that do not get the mandated clearances would not be provided with electricity and water.
The challenge before India, as compared to China, is more complex, as it is still in the nascent stage of industrialization. It will be a real challenge to emulate China, which is facing the problem of excess capacity in the steel and cement industries. Moreover, like China, India depends on cheap coal for power generation, and it is years away from switching completely to renewable energy.
India, however, can learn from the Chinese experience of installing basic pollution abatement equipment in almost all its thermal power plants. India has installed such equipment in only 10 percent of its power plants. China, by switching to high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal technologies, has also made its coal-fired power plants more efficient. India can also draw from the Chinese experience of restricting traffic flow and using cloud seeding, especially in the national capital, during periods of heavy smog. It also needs to establish a proper waste disposal system, as we have lately seen fires breaking out in waste-dumping sites in Mumbai and Bangalore. Further, in view of the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to ban registration of luxury SUVs and diesel cars above 2000 cc in the national capital, immediate steps need to be taken to improve the public transport system in all major cities.
The Indian government needs to come out with a comprehensive plan for addressing the issue of air pollution. If proper steps are taken, India, like China, will succeed in controlling air pollution by keeping the Air Quality Index below 100, which falls under the moderate level of health concerns. These steps will help India to realize its environmental and social responsibilities.
K. S. Venkatachalam is an independent columnist and political commentator.