These measures and calls for polluters' responsibility have not had much effect – largely because there has been an increase in slash-and-burn cultivation in Punjab. Hence emergency responses, the most significant of which has been to close schools and, for individuals and businesses, to equip offices, homes and passenger cars with air purifiers. A bar where oxygen can be filled with compressed air cylinders has even opened – one can "consume" for a quarter of an hour at a rate ranging from 299 (off-peak) to 499 (peak) rupees.
If Delhi forms the epicentre of what is called "airpocalypse", not only other cities which are like the Indian capital located under the Himalayan arch (Lucknow, Faridabad, Kanpur, Varanasi, Agra etc.) beat pollution records, but so do also Ahmedabad, Pune, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore etc.
Since the pollution peak in Beijing in January 2013, how have the Chinese authorities dealt with the air quality crisis in China?
The most specific aspect of the Beijing case is the shift from a posture of denial to the sudden declaration of a national emergency. The frustration of the best-informed fringe of the population in northern China and the disastrous international image of pollution in the Chinese capital eventually converged during the "airpocalypse" episode in January 2013. The levels of pollutants in the air were then comparable to the measurements made in New Delhi this fall. In Beijing and Hebei province, which concentrates heavy industries, including nearly 25% of national steel production, the concentration of PM 2.5 particles exceeded 1000 μg/m3 on several occasions, and the average stagnated at around 500 μg/m3, a level at which the health effects on the most vulnerable are immediate. The air people breathe in Beijing then tastes like metal.
Residents of Beijing are used to two to three days of thick toxic fog. The northerly winds always dissipate it eventually. But the peak in January 2013 was striking in terms of its intensity, duration and level of disruption (e.g. hundreds of flight cancellations). Before this smog crisis, pollution was treated as another overly sensitive political issue on which it was better to remain silent to avoid alarming the population. The Chinese media were silent despite the cost to public health, measured in years of life expectancy and numbers of lung cancers.
In 2013, the only indicator available for PM 2.5 was that of the United States Embassy, caught with its rooftop sensor (installed for the price of a car). Available on the Embassy's Twitter account and via smartphone applications, the measures put strong pressure on the Chinese authorities because of the international media coverage they generated, but also because of the local attention they caught from residents seeking information.
Getting out of the isle of denial was brutal. Once the problem had been classified as a national emergency and Premier Wen Jiabao had announced in March 2014 a "war on pollution", the Chinese State redoubled its efforts, using all of its strike force, its efficiency and its ability to assume severe collateral damage on special interests, all the while seeking a balance between air quality and industrial interests. A 2013 National Action Plan set the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei area the ambitious target of a 25% reduction in their annual PM 2.5 emissions by 2017. As for Beijing, its emissions needed to be controlled at a level below 60 μg/m3, a target that remains far above the WHO standard of 10 μg/m3.
These objectives have been achieved, but the pollution problem remains. In 2018, the annual average in Beijing is 58 μg/m3. The peaks are more spaced out and less violent but have not completely disappeared – 202 of them by 22 November 2019. Problems with other pollutants, such as ozone, remain serious. But the cities of Hebei suffocated by pollution - Shijiazhuang, Tangshan, Handan, Baoding and Langfang - have experienced comparable reductions.