More than 20 million people woke last week to a thick, acrid, and noxious smog that settled densely across the Indian capital.
Primary schools were forced to shut, vehicles restricted from traveling on roads and construction brought to a halt as a hazy gray enveloped New Delhi, blocking buildings from view and prompting residents to panic buy air purifiers.
Behind closed doors, state authorities and federal officials gathered to put together a plan that would clean up the city’s air after its Air Quality Index (AQI) passed 500 — a figure so high that experts warn it could be shaving more than a decade off the life expectancy of those who live there.
But the scene is hardly unprecedented.
Every year, New Delhi’s skies turn the same sickly yellow, prompting the same scramble by authorities to crackdown on the pollution.
Every year, around this time, headlines about the issue dominate the news, reminding the country’s 1,4 billion people that smog season is back with a vengeance. And every year, people ask why nothing has changed.
“It’s an invisible killer,” said Jyoti Pande Lavakare, author of “Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution” and co-founder of clean air non-profit Care for Air.
“And unfortunately, there is just no political will to solve this problem from any party. There is not one party that has put its head down and said, ‘we are sickening the entire country and let’s fix it’.”
New Delhi’s current toxic skies are reminiscent of another major Asian capital that about a decade ago was famous for a smog so thick that it could shroud entire skyscrapers from view: Beijing.
China’s capital has since cleaned up its act, which begs the question: if Beijing can clean up its toxic air, why can’t India too?
Like India, rapid industrialisation and urbanization contributed to China’s remarkable rise as an economic superpower. And like India’s expansion, China’s came with an environmental cost: a deep reliance on fossil fuels and emission heavy industries that was making the air putrid with pollutants.
In Beijing, a city of nearly 22 million people, the air had become so bad that it was widely referred to as the “air-pocalypse”.
Hospitals were often flooded with respiratory patients, and residents — especially families with children — were so desperate that many left the city to take jobs further south, and even overseas, where the air was better.
This general view shows a central business district in Beijing on June 3, 2013. China’s manufacturing activity shrank more than first reported in May, HSBC bank said on June 3, confirming the first contraction in seven months.
A key moment in China’s fightback came in 2013, when the government started to invest billions of dollars into a national air pollution action plan.
What followed was a rollout of new regulations, including restricting the number of vehicles on the roads in major cities, tightening environmental oversight and controls on emissions, building a nationwide system of air monitoring stations, and reining in coal and other heavy-polluting industries.
Beijing, said Frank Christian Hammes, Global CEO of IQAir, “took it seriously.”
“We see electrification. In restaurants, and on street food vendors, we don’t see coal being used anymore.
The power generators have shifted to gas. All this has made a big difference,” he said. In the decade since, China has seen its air quality improve dramatically.
The country’s pollution levels in 2021 had fallen 42 percent from 2013, according to a report from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, which praised its “staggering success in combating pollution.”
A decade later, Beijing has long fallen off the top of the world’s worst pollution list and currently ranks 27 on the ranking by IQAir, a Swiss company that tracks global air quality.
New Delhi started the week by once again clinching the top spot.
China’s raft of clean air policies have been so successful, they have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, research has shown.
The report warned, however, there is still work to do and Beijing’s particulate pollution – the tiny but highly dangerous pollutants that can evade the human body’s usual defenses – is still 40 percent higher than in the most polluted county in the United States.
Nonetheless, the data shows China is on the right track. And many in India want to see similar progress in their country.
“India has everything in place to change what’s happening. We have science and the finance, but we lack a reduction-based approach,” said Sunil Dahiya, from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) in New Delhi.
In comparison to Beijing’s strict measures that were intended for long-term success, New Delhi’s have been “reactive,” he argued.
“These are not solutions,” Dahiya added – CNN