The foul odor of failed air pollution policy

Delhi is enduring one of the worst air pollution crises in recent memory. While such events are increasingly common in India, the rare few that are severe enough to capture international headlinesshould provide an urgent wake-up call to policymakers.

By late morning on November 7, PM2.5 levels – a measure of the size of airborne particulate matter – reached an appalling 769, quadruple the level in the next most polluted city, Chennai.

Delhi officials are now scrambling to mitigate the impacts, from construction restrictions and road dust management to limitations on power generation equipment and license plate-based road access. These measures, of course, only serve temporary ends. There is great urgency – but little hope – forgovernment to aggressively confront the deeper structural catalysts of air pollution.

While terrorism, political violence, pandemics, and sea-level rise are formidable threats to human livelihoods, air pollution continues to have an unparalleled impact on survival. An estimated6.5 milliondeaths worldwide are attributable to air pollution each year, according to the International Energy Agency(IEA). The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has established guidelines for air quality based on the concentration and size of particulate matter; the smaller the particulates, the deeper and more harmful their penetration into human lungs can be. For particulates less than 10 microns wide (PM10), the criticalthreshold is 20 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) as an annual mean, and 50 μg/m3 as a daily mean. For those less than 2.5 microns wide (PM2.5), the threshold is 10 μg/m3(annual) and 25 μg/m3(daily). W.H.O. suggests that a reduction in PM10 from 70 μg/m3 (a common level in developing cities) to 20 μg/m3could result in a 15% decrease in pollution-related deaths. 

Household air pollution, which accounted for nearly 1 million deaths in India in 2013, comprises the burning of solid fuels such as coal, wood, dung, and crop residue; these are vital sources of power and heat in poor and developing regions. For example, crop burning in Indonesia has compromised air quality in neighboring countries such as Singapore, causing public resentment and diplomatic tension. A similar dynamic is occurring in Delhi, which often suffers from burning in nearby rural areas. Ambient air pollution, which accounts for over half a million deaths in India in 2013, comprises emissions from power plants and automobiles, among other sources; these activities are more common in wealthier developed regions. 

A closer inspection of geographic patterns reveals that the threat is concentrated in a handful of countries. In findings presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in 2013 55% of the 5.5 millionair pollution-related deathsoccurred in India (1.4 million) and China (1.6 million) combined. W.H.O.’s recently released countrystatisticsshow that the gap between developed and developing countries is growing. In the 22 largest cities of developed East Asia (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan), the annual meanfor μg/m3of PM10, an average of 37, exceeds W.H.O. standards by only a modest margin. In contrast, the average for 122 Indian cities (107) far exceeds standards. Day-to-day statistics are cause for further concern;in late October 2016, Delhi’s PM10 readings reached a shocking4,273 µg/m³. For more hazardous PM2.5, the annual mean in the same Indian cities was 59, far beyond the average (21)for developed East Asian cities and egregiously non-compliant with W.H.O.standards. While Asia’s developed countries are setting the regional and global standard for how to manage air pollution, Asia’s developing countries are providing case studies incrippling policy failure. 

Globally, over 80% cities where air pollution is monitored fail to meet W.H.O standards.On a per-capita basis, countries with the deadliest air pollution (yearly deaths per 100,000 people) include Ukraine (1st of 184 countries), Russia (4th), and China (10th).India is the 27th deadliest, with 49 yearly deaths per 100,000 people. The top-10 safest, by the same metric, includes Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia.According to a recent OECD study,more than 700,000 people in Africa die from air pollution each year.Even paragons of environmental policy often fail to achieve performance targets; for example, measurements taken during summer 2016 found that PM2.5 in San Jose, California, exceeded that in Shanghai on 32 out of 61 days. According to the senior director of air quality and climate change for the American Lung Association in California, an estimated 7,000Californianssuffer early deaths each year due to air pollution-related complications; a 2013 MIT studyfound that 200,000 people across the United States die each year for similar reasons. 

Is India’s inadequate management of air pollution a failure of policy design, resource constraints, implementation capacity, or simply weak political will? According to the IEA, “the air quality outlook is not set in stone, but rather it is a policy choice.”There is a variety of policy-induced practices to address air pollution: clean technologies and industrial processes, cleaner power generation, “smart” urbanization emphasizing density and public transport, energy-efficient buildings, and optimized waste management.Now is the time for domestic constituents, environmental watchdogs, and policy experts to advocate more aggressively for good-faith policy intervention. The expertise and knowledge exist; the next move is a political one.

Pollution is having irreversible effects on a young generation of urban Indians. Is the government prepared to assume the cost of health liabilities as this generation ages? Is the government prepared for lost economic potential due toaworkforce with declining health? Will PM2.5 levels need to reach 1,000 before the government digs deeper into the roots of the problem instead of providing window dressing only when the most severe crises occur? Most importantly, from a humanitarian perspective, how many deaths are finally too many? India will soon overtake China as the world’s most populous country. It will continue to be at the forefront of 21st century-style economic transformation; rapid rural-urban migration, widespread labor upskilling, and the impacts of new middle class demand for automobile transport and spacious housing. The current crisis is one moment when political will is most receptive to substantive policy change. India’s leaders must show good faith initiative and demonstrate to the world that the country is not still content sacrificing health for wealth.

Asit K. Biswas and Kris Hartley

Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Kris Hartley is a Lecturer at the Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University.