Finding a way through prolonged haze and policy maze

As cities around the world saw smog-ridden days and unabated carbon emission in 2016, Down To Earth looks into the scale of problem and solutions to look for in 2017

By Subhojit Goswami
Last Updated: Friday 16 December 2016
Despite facing severe air pollution, China aims at increasing coal power generation capacity by 19 per cent over the next five years. Credit: Han Jun Zeng/ Flicker
Despite facing severe air pollution, China aims at increasing coal power generation capacity by 19 per cent over the next five years. Credit: Han Jun Zeng/ Flicker Despite facing severe air pollution, China aims at increasing coal power generation capacity by 19 per cent over the next five years. Credit: Han Jun Zeng/ Flicker

Air pollution scenario

The national capital region of India continues to gasp for clean air even since the haze descended on October 30. The smog that emerged due to a combination of factors like burning of firecrackers, paddy burning and emission from power plants could not be dispersed due to a drop in wind speed, increase in humidity and low temperature. On November 5 and 6, PM2.5 levels in Delhi reached 837 microgram per cubic metre (µg/m3), much higher than the safe limit—60 µg/m3.

To put things into perspective, when PM 2.5 concentration level hovers between 90 and 120µ/m3, people with respiratory issues start feeling discomfort. At 120-250µ/m3, categorised as “very poor”, the risk of developing respiratory illness on prolonged exposure increases. Like the recent episode of extreme pollution, almost every winter in the last two decades caught Delhi unaware with a spike in levels of pollution.

Annual average pollution data for 2014. Credit: Central Pollution Control Board

While the Down To Earth tracked the 20-year-long fight to clean Delhi's air, it’s study shows how several smaller cities turned out to be more polluted than the national capital. Going by the daily Air Quality Index (AQI) that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) releases for 32 cities, Kanpur, Lucknow and Faridabad had witnessed worse air quality than Delhi on different days in the first two weeks of November 2016. Varanasi and Allahabad also sprung a surprise as they didn’t observe even a single day of “good” air quality in more than 220 days when measurements were taken.

Sharing border with the state of Punjab in India, the Pakistani city of Lahore is also a victim of severe air pollution. It has seen a permanent haze hanging over the city during winter for the last five years. The poor air quality in the city is attributed to increased vehicular and industrial emissions, especially from the coal-based industries in east Punjab, closer to the border with India.

Is China exporting pollution to the US?

Neighbouring China witnesses 76 deaths per 100,000 people every year and it is also the world’s deadliest country for outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Particulate matter in China causes 17 per cent of all deaths and two birth defects a minute.  Winter-time pollution has remained a nagging concern for a country where coal still dominates the energy mix. Coal is, in fact, responsible for about 40 per cent of the PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere.

Ambient air pollution in India and China.Credit: CDC Global

While Donald Trump can disregard global warming as China’s creation, he must be really concerned over the country exporting pollution to the US. Chinese manufacturers, who are accused of killing the US industry and jobs, are now held responsible for pollution in the US. But how? Particulate matter, heavy metals and other poisons emitted by Chinese factories move across the East China Sea contributing 40 per cent of Tokyo’s air pollution. These pollutants travel all the way to the US in about four days. According to a NASA study, 25-30 per cent of California’s air pollution originates in China.

While the US regulatory regime punishes local companies with huge costs and force them to ensure air quality improvements, cleaner emissions are offset by pollution from China crossing the Pacific.

Alarmingly high air pollution in EU cities

The year 2016 was forgettable for many European cities as they, too, witnessed a spike in air pollution levels. In the first week of December, Paris experienced three polluted days in a row in what is considered the worst bout of air pollution for at least 10 years. Low wind speed failed to disperse the smog that blanketed Paris and veiled the Eiffel Tower. The pollution was the result of a combination of vehicular emission and emission from domestic wood fires. For more than a week, the French capital recorded PM10 more than 80 µg/m3, reaching 146 µg/m3 on December 1.

London was worse off in 2016. It is one of the most polluted cities in the UK with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) level continuously breaching the EU standards. In fact, air pollution has been linked to nearly 9,500 premature deaths in the city every year. If we consider the UK, over 90 per cent of the population lives in areas with average PM2.5 level is above the WHO’s air quality limits of 10 µg/m3. Meanwhile, a High Court judge has asked the government to submit an improved air quality action plan by July 2017.

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