When it comes to air pollution in India, there is no dearth of data but definitely of intent and holistic plans to fight it. Last week, the World Bank and the University of Washington added to the existing mountain of figures when it released a new report, The cost of air pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action.
According to the report, total welfare losses between 1990 and 2013 because of premature deaths from air pollution increased by 94%. Of this, damages from ambient PM 2.5 air pollution rose by 63% during this period to $3.5 trillion, while damages from household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels jumped almost four-fold to $1.5 trillion, adjusted to the purchasing power parity (PPP) in 2011.
In terms of welfare losses because of air pollution, India ranks second, after China, at $505.1 billion, or 7.69% of its gross domestic product (GDP), in 2013. Premature deaths due to air pollution in 2013 cost the global economy about $225 billion in lost labour income, or about $5.11 trillion in welfare losses, worldwide, the report said.
Cut the above jargon, this is what the report indicates: Developing countries such as India are often disinclined to invest legally, financially and politically in measures that can safeguard the environment because they fear those could halt economic progress. While chasing growth, they often overlook what is there in the other side of the balance sheet: The cost imposed on people living in regions where pollution and environmental degradation are much higher. For example, India reported the highest loss in labour output in 2013 owing to air pollution globally at $55.39 billion (2011 PPP-adjusted), or 0.84% of its GDP. China followed close behind with $44.56 billion, or 0.28% of its GDP, lost due to forgone labour output.
Add to this the long-term health costs: Air pollution, the report adds is the fourth-biggest fatal risk factor in the world. Air pollution kills more people than tobacco, alcohol or drug use or unsafe sex in most countries. In absolute terms, India reported the second-highest number of deaths due to air pollution in 2013, next to China.
The report calls for using satellite-level data along with ground-based information to get a holistic picture of the extent of air pollution in a given region, while focusing on the importance of information at sub-national levels and beyond big cities.
But rich data or anti-pollution policies are not enough. To reverse the trend of such losses due to environmental crisis, politicians and the public must understand what all that mountain of data simply means: Unsustainable economic growth is a recipe for long-term disaster.
But then who will bell the cat?