India’s smog must focus minds on solutions to deadly global crisis

by Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UN Environment Programme - 22 November, 2019
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.

The shroud of 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 and countries 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 also damaging our economies, our food security and our climate. It is down to us to fix it.

In common with other polluted regions of the world, the smog in Northern India is coming from a variety of sources, including the burning of waste and agricultural residue, power plants, industry, transport, household fires and construction. Earlier this summer, land clearance fires turned the skies over Indonesia red and forced school closures. And 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 obvious and dramatic. A report early this year found that deprived communities in London breathe levels of nitrogen dioxide, largely from traffic, 25 per cent above average.

The simple truth is that nobody is safe from air pollution. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to air pollutants that exceed WHO recommended 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. The good news is that India along with other nations, has many options. Two studies – Breathing Cleaner Air: Ten Scalable Solutions for Indian Cities, and Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions – have highlighted many of these solutions. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition, co-led by my organization, is working with countries to make them a reality. India joined the Coalition this year, demonstrating commitment to addressing its air pollution crisis.

As the UN Secretary-General has said, phasing out coal-fired power plants is essential to address air pollution and climate change. Within a 300 km 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 moving away from open burning of waste and the use of biomass and fossil fuels for cooking, lighting and heating. Alternatives such as cleaner cookstoves and off-grid solar can make a big difference to families who currently have to rely on fossil fuels for their domestic energy needs.

These alternatives need not break the bank. Replacing kerosene, candles and battery-powered torches with solar LED lanterns in South Asia would save USD 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 put in place measures 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 a major growth market in vehicle fleets, but it is looking at setting targets on the number of electric vehicles – 30 per cent of sales share by 2030 – as an air quality solution. Globally, meanwhile, sales of plug-in electric and hybrid cars hit 2.1 million in 2018, 64 per cent higher than the year before. But there are still too many dirty cars on the road. Policies to make it cheaper to buy and run electric vehicles can shift the balance to clean vehicles. For example, lower taxes on clean vehicles saw the number of electric and hybrid cars in Sri Lanka’s fleet grew tenfold between 2013 and mid-2018.

A reversal of the air quality crisis is certainly possible, as other cities are showing. In 2013, Beijing adopted measures to control coal-fired boilers, provide cleaner domestic fuels, and restructure industry. Four year later, pollution of the smallest and deadliest air pollution particles – known as PM2.5 – had fallen by 35 per cent. 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. This brought a 29 per cent reduction in roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.

There are many more options. Nature-based solutions can come to the rescue – for example, green belts in cities can filter pollutants and reduce the need for power-hungry cooling. Cities can also encourage more non-motorized transport, such as walking or cycling, or 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.

This is just a small sample of the solutions. If we take advantage of them, 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.

We all breathe the same air. 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.


Inger Andersen

Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme and Under-Secretary-General, United Nations

Inger Andersen was appointed Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in February 2019.