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Air Pollution in India and China: Out of the Smog?

Cross interview between Mathieu Duchâtel and Christophe Jaffrelot

INTERVIEW - 2 December 2019

There were more than a 1000 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter of air in 2013 in Beijing, more than 800 in early November in New Delhi. Given that WHO recommends a maximum of 10 micrograms as annual average concentration, the figures inevitably call for a response from the public authorities. The issue of air pollution is not a challenge specific to China or India, but there it has reached public health crisis level. In this crossover look, Mathieu Duchâtel, Director of Institut Montaigne’s Asia Program and Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, explore the Chinese and Indian cases.

In view of the frequent pollution peaks, and in particular the one in New Delhi at the beginning of November, what has been the response of local and national authorities to this challenge?

CHRISTOPHE JAFFRELOT

The question is not limited to Delhi, although it is more acute there. In recent years, air pollution has become a major problem in India, to the point that the government has decided to measure the concentration of fine particles in the air using 32 sensors spread throughout the country and to create a National Air Quality Index (which is, however, less stringent than World Health Organization standards).

This is not only a challenge for public transport, especially when winter fogs create a real "smog" forcing airlines to cancel dozens of flights, but also and above all a public health problem. In this country, which had 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world in 2017, according to a study published in The Lancet, this scourge has already caused 1.2 million premature deaths, mainly among children and the elderly. The problem is not new: as early as of 2014, the WHO ranked 13 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted in the world. Today, it is estimated that 600,000 people die prematurely each year in India due to air pollution, 35,000 of them in Delhi.

At the beginning of November, the American Embassy recorded a concentration of 810 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre of air, a rate 32 times higher than WHO standards (which is equivalent to smoking 22 cigarettes a day according to some estimations). As the authorities were slow to react, the Supreme Court intervened. It suspended construction sites and quarry work in the region as well as waste incineration, with heavy fines for any violation of these rules.

The response of the State of Delhi was to reintroduce (as of last year) the alternating circulation of State vehicles, after it had already called on the large crowds who celebrate Diwali every year with a large number of Bengal fires to show restraint.

As early as of 2014, the WHO ranked 13 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted in the world.

The Delhi government has also asked neighbouring states, mainly in rural areas, to suspend slash-and-burn farming. Every year, farmers burn the stubble left by the harvests to be able to sow again. This is the main cause of air pollution.

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?

MATHIEU DUCHÂTEL

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.

The strength of China's plans has been to simultaneously address with specific measures the four main sources of dangerous particles emissions: automotive emissions, coal heating, polluting industries (including energy), but also the construction sector in rapidly changing urban areas.

Residents of Beijing are used to two to three days of thick toxic fog.

A drastic plan is targeting coal-fired heating on the outskirts of the Chinese capital and China is accelerating its natural gas imports - the human cost is in the loss of access to heating for some households, and the expulsion of provincial migrants from Beijing. In the industrial sector, the government can request reductions of up to 50% in steel, aluminum and cement production during the winter of 2016-2017.

Can the public policies introduced in China be replicated in India or are they constrained to a specific national framework?

MATHIEU DUCHÂTEL AND CHRISTOPHE JAFFRELOT

Some of the policies applied in China are of course applicable in India. Some decisions have already been taken in this direction for several years now, under the impulsion of the judiciary, which, in this area, is more proactive than governments, given its independence towards car-drivers’ and farmers’ vote intentions. Most factories (including coal-fired power plants) in the Delhi region have been closed or relocated; the use of cleaner fuel has been imposed on everyone; crossing Delhi has been banned for trucks, etc...

Environmental NGOs are nonetheless asking for more – alone, in the absence of "green parties"- while political parties remain very discreet on the subject. Three major claims have emerged: first, a revision of the obsolete 1981 India Air Act, particularly since it does not provide any emergency mechanism in the event of a pollution peak, nor does it sanction the effect of deteriorating air quality on health; second, the termination of slash-and-burn farming, which continues (particularly in Punjab) despite court rulings. The head of the Punjab government covers the offences by asking the central government to finance the purchase of machines that farmers should use to collect the stubble that they now systematically burn; and thirdly, the introduction of electric buses, for the acquisition of which the first calls for tenders have just been issued. This last point brings us back to China because the buses in question may well come from the Middle Kingdom.

The mortgages that India must lift to really move the lines and be in line with the Prime Minister's strong call for environmental action at the UN climate summit last September are twofold: on the one hand, the budget for promoting cleaner air must be increased beyond the estimated $28 million for the National Clean Air Programme; on the other hand, the governments of Punjab, Delhi and India, each in the hands of a different party, must coordinate their policies.

The India-China comparison raises the question of the most effective balance between executive power and checks-and-balances. China has been able to achieve concrete results by working on ambitious targets with authoritarian methods. Those results nonetheless came along with traditional abuses related to centralized planning and macro objectives: the cost for some special interests was ignored. China's administrative efficiency is also based on the threat of severe penalties and fines. The Chinese approach nevertheless has weaknesses. It deprives itself of the benefits of freedom of the press, an active civil society and an independent judiciary, which are essential to contain abuses of power and keep polluters under pressure. India has thus many specific resources to tap into its political system.

 

Copyright : Jewel SAMAD / AFP

 

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