The smog that has enveloped Delhi recently, at one point so bad that planes had to be diverted, has been described in many ways. Toxic. Deadly. Apocalyptic. But the most apt description, one that applies to the air pollution affecting cities everywhere, is “self-inflicted”.
Humanity is to blame for a global air quality crisis that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), causes seven million premature deaths each year. This threat is damaging our economies, our food security and our climate. It is down to us to fix it.
Air pollution has many sources — fossil fuels in electricity generation, transport, industry and households; industry; agriculture and waste management; and construction. India’s smog comes from the burning of agricultural waste, power plants and household fires. Earlier this summer, land clearances fires turned the skies over Indonesia red. We all remember the dark skies over Sao Paulo when the Amazon burned. Air pollution is just as big a problem when it isn’t so dramatic. A report this year found that deprived communities in London breathe levels of nitrogen dioxide, largely from traffic, 25% above average.
Almost nobody is safe. Nine out of 10 people worldwide are exposed to air pollutants that exceed WHO safe levels. No matter who you are or where you live, dirty air is probably damaging your health.
In India alone, air pollution-related deaths will rise from 1.1 million in 2015 to 3.6 million annually by 2050 unless additional measures are taken. But India has many options at its disposal, as highlighted in two studies — Breathing Cleaner Air: Ten Scalable Solutions for Indian Cities, and Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition, co-led by my organisation, is working with countries to make these solutions a reality. India joined the coalition this year, demonstrating commitment to addressing its air pollution crisis.
As the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, has said, phasing out coal-fired power plants is essential to address air pollution and climate change. Within a 300km radius of Delhi, there are 13 coal-fired plants with capacity of over 11,000 MW. While the situation is exacerbated by the burning of agricultural waste, coal-fired plant emissions are clearly a contributor to poor air quality.
Also key for developing nations, particularly in rural areas, is limiting open burning of waste and the use of biomass and fossil fuels for cooking, lighting and heating. Cleaner cooking stoves and off-grid solar can make a big difference to families who rely on fossil fuels for their energy.
These alternatives bring other benefits. Replacing kerosene, candles and battery-powered torches with solar LED lanterns in South Asia would save $5.6 to 7.6 billion in fuel costs, avoid 23.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, and benefit almost 500 million people.
India is working to accelerate this transition. For a global leader in the renewable energy transition, this is entirely possible.
Cleaner mobility is the most important issue for urban areas. India is looking at setting targets on the number of electric vehicles — 30% of sales share by 2030. Globally, sales of plug-in electric and hybrid cars hit 2.1 million in 2018, 64% higher than the year before. But there are still too many dirty cars on the road. Policies to make it cheaper to buy electric vehicles can help. For example, lower taxes on clean vehicles saw the number of electric and hybrid cars in Sri Lanka’s fleet grow tenfold between 2013 and mid-2018.
A reversal of the air quality crisis is possible, as other cities are showing. In 2013, Beijing adopted measures to control coal-fired boilers, provide cleaner domestic fuels, and restructure industry. Four years later, pollution of the smallest and deadliest air pollution particles — known as PM2.5 — had fallen by 35%. London has also progressed.
An October report on the first six months of its Ultra Low Emission Zone found that 13,500 fewer polluting cars had driven in the zone daily, bringing a 29% reduction in roadside nitrogen dioxide.
There are many more options. Nature-based solutions can come to the rescue — for example, green belts in cities filter pollutants and reduce the need for power-hungry cooling. Cities can encourage non-motorised transport, such as walking or cycling, or implement well-designed mass-transit systems. How our cities breathe is especially important when you consider that we are expanding urban areas at the rate of a city the size of Paris every week.
If we take advantage of the solutions at hand, we won’t just improve air quality. Since many sources of air pollution also cause global warming, we will also contribute to reversing the global climate crisis. Air pollution affects us all. It is our common responsibility to do something about it. What is happening in India shows all too clearly that we need to do it now.
Learn More: UNEP