‘China’s financial, public commitment helped turn tide on air pollution’

Updated on Jun 15, 2022 08:49 AM IST

Air pollution levels in India have continued to increase, according to the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) released on Tuesday

Christa Hasenkopf. (Sourced)
Christa Hasenkopf. (Sourced)
ByJayashree Nandi

Around 97% of the people globally live in regions where air pollution levels exceed the threshold identified as optimum as per World Health Organisation’s (WHO) revised air quality guidelines released last year. But some regions are making progress in reducing pollution. China has managed to achieve a 40% reduction in PM 2.5 levels since 2013. Air pollution levels in India have continued to increase, according to the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) released on Tuesday. In an interview with HT, Christa Hasenkopf, the director of AQLI and Air Quality Programs at EPIC, said financial and public commitment to reducing air pollution was a huge factor in China’s success. Edited excerpts:

How is AQLI different this year?

This year, there is new data. Data from 2020, as opposed to previous years, and we are incorporating new World Health Organisation PM 2.5 guidelines, which are much stricter. So those are the two new updates.

Why has not there been an improvement in air quality even as the Indian government has announced measures such as the National Clean Air Programme?

Since 1998, India’s annual average particulate pollution has increased by 61.4%... [it is] currently... the world’s second most polluted country. ...over the past few years, the trend in pollution has been ticking upwards but ...at a much slower pace than previously. I think this comes down to pollution being a very stubborn problem and cleaning it up requires a sustained effort over a long period. I think the proactive steps the government of India has begun taking and states that have begun making their air pollution action plans give us hope. That is how I will frame the progress.

How has China turned the tide on air pollution and improved life expectancy?

China has been a beacon of progress since it declared a war on pollution in 2014. Pollution this year fell by almost 40% in China since 2013 and added around two years to life expectancy. That success is a combination of strict policies and putting considerable financial resources. ...in 2014, specific pollution targets were set...[measures such as] banning of new coal plants in highly populated regions [were taken] ...existing plants were mandated to reduce their emissions or switch to other fuel sources and others were closed or relocated. China sets a promising example for other similar economies. Whether the policies they set make sense in those economies is one thing. But I think financial and public commitment was a huge factor in their success.

Are any regions/countries in the world complying with WHO’s revised guidelines on annual PM 2.5 average concentration of 5 micrograms per cubic metre?

A vast majority of the world falls outside the threshold. As per the previous WHO guidelines, about 80% of the global population lived in unsafe zones. Now 97% live in areas that exceed the threshold. Some of the notable places that did meet or fall below the WHO PM 2.5 annual average threshold include Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, most of Scandinavia--Norway, Sweden, Finland--countries in Oceania and the Caribbean and not entire countries but significant portions of Canada and Scotland.

What can India do to reduce air pollution?

India has made a lot of progress in air quality monitoring but there is still a lot of room to improve and cover gaps both geographically...and in accessibility to granular data. I think that goes for South Asia as well. Our study relies on satellite-derived data calibrated through ground monitoring data. The more ground monitoring data available the better.

Why was not there any major reduction in air pollution levels in 2020 when Covid-19-related lockdowns were imposed?

We cannot say why. In India, we did not see any major drop in air pollution despite the restrictions. Across the world, there is a large variation in where the pollution increased and where it decreased. On net, air pollution levels very slightly decreased compared to the previous year. There is no overwhelming story there. It was a mixed bag.

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