At last, India is on track to beat China at something—air pollution

New Delhi’s big problem: unbreathable air.
New Delhi’s big problem: unbreathable air.
Image: EPA/Rajat Gupta
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

India’s pollution problem has become apocalyptic. New Delhi, the nation’s capital, is especially bad but it’s no exception; in 2015, many other northern Indian cities reported ongoing unhealthy levels of particulate matter pollution. Now it looks like it’s only a matter of time before the country dethrones China as the bearer of the world’s deadliest air.

Globally, the number of deaths attributable to PM2.5—fine particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns that reduces visibility and can create respiratory issues—rose from 3.5 million in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2015, according to the State of Global Air Report 2017, a joint study by the Health Effects Institute in Boston, Massachusetts and the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington. More than half of these deaths occurred in India and China together: deadly air claimed 1.1 million lives in each country.

Although China still leads the world in air pollution-related deaths, the problem appears to have stabilized in the country since the start of the decade, perhaps in part due to strengthening government regulation. Beijing has made notable strides in fighting pollution by, for example, pulling outdated high-emission cars off the road, improving public transportation systems, and introducing policies to encourage the production and use of cleaner vehicles. India, meanwhile, has done little to stop the alarming rise in PM2.5-related deaths.

And PM2.5 exposure is not the sole killer in India: “Globally there was a 60% increase in ozone-attributable deaths [between 1990 and 2015], with a striking 67% of this increase occurring in India,” the State of Global Air report noted.

Many of these deaths are due to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, a category of illnesses that includes bronchitis and emphysema. The study found that in India, between 1990 and 2015, there was a 150% increase in annual deaths due to COPD, caused by ozone exposure. In that same time period, China’s annual ozone-related COPD death count has more or less been unchanged.

India’s growing pollution crisis can be attributed to the country’s rapid industrialization and its heavy reliance on coal as an energy source—the air in Indian cities is filled with a deadly mix of dust, exhaust fumes, open fires, burnt crops, and factory emissions. Bursting firecrackers during Diwali also send PM2.5 levels soaring.

In 2013, the World Bank estimated that pollution shaved off nearly 8% from India’s GDP due to lost work days and increased welfare costs.

Unfortunately, air quality levels are monitored by the government in only a handful of cities and there are still people in power who deny the data altogether. To solve the problem, Indian leaders need to take the very first step: acknowledging and naming it.