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China-India Smog Rivalry a Sign of Global Menace

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Air pollution kills around 7 million people every year, accounting for one in eight deaths worldwide, according to a report from the World Heath Organization (WHO) released March 25. Thankfully, the problem is getting more media attention.

Images of Beijing’s “Airpocalypse” were a staple of news coverage in 2013, and when pollution levels soared in New Delhi earlier this year a journalistic frenzy ensued, with dozens are articles asking whether China or India had the smoggiest capital city (see infographic at bottom). It’s reassuring to see New Delhi’s pollution finally getting noticed since Being has tended to grab most of the headlines. Beyond diplomatic one-upmanship, however, the rivalry is trivial.

According to the 2014 edition of our Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a biennial ranking of countries produced by Yale and Columbia universities, India and China both tie for dead last in terms of populations affected by poor air quality. Nearly the entire population of both countries is exposed to harmful particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, known as PM2.5, which can penetrate human lung and blood tissue and contribute to lung disease and premature death.

LEFT: Smog obscures the Forbidden City in Beijing in September 2005. Credit: Brian Jeffery Beggerly/Flickr. RIGHT: Smog hangs over Connaught Place in New Delhi in November 2006. Credit: Ville Miettinen/Flickr.

But with dangerous air pollution in other parts of the world, narrow attention on just China, India or China-versus-India is problematic. It contributes to diplomatic noise while distracting useful investigations into a global problem that is killing a lot of people – and not just in the developing world. Earlier this month, severe air pollution in Paris prompted officials to temporarily impose a partial driving ban and provide free public transportation.

The 2014 EPI reveals that 1.78 billion people are currently exposed to PM2.5 levels 250 percent higher than that threshold deemed “safe” by the WHO. More shockingly, 3.87 billion people worldwide – almost half of the global population – live in areas that exceed this threshold. Trends over the last decade show the problem is quickly getting worse. Industry and the transport sector, which are the primary sources of air pollution, have grown particularly fast in emerging economies like China, India and Brazil. The regulation and monitoring of emissions has simply not kept pace.

Our research points to some of the major obstacles to improving these negative trends. First, an international consensus on air pollution reduction targets does not exist. If we are to cooperate on improving the quality of our air and the lives of all who breathe it, we need to commit to prioritizing clean air. Although scientists and public health advocates might agree on what thresholds for safe air quality levels look like, enacting policies and targets to achieve them is much more complicated. The sources of air pollution are distributed across a dizzying variety of sectors, from industry and energy production to waste management and household cooking. Tackling air pollution as a unified issue and achieving even conservative targets has proven difficult.

Access to clean drinking water, on the other hand, has seen remarkable improvements over the last decade. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), 8 global goals ranging from poverty alleviation to HIV/AIDs reduction, set upon halving the global population lacking access to clean water by 2015. Achieving this goal was relatively clear-cut because the causes of unsafe drinking water, primarily lack of sanitation, are easier to target than air pollution’s myriad causes. International institutions worked in concert with clear targets in hand. Analogous targets for clean air do not exist.

The second obstacle to improving air quality is poor monitoring on the part of governments and authorities. This may be due to the expense of monitoring or, disturbingly, policymakers’ fear of exposing air pollution realities. Policymakers must stop seeing air monitoring as an expense or a luxury of wealthy nations, and deaths of vulnerable populations as collateral damage of economic growth.

Despite all of the media attention, national air quality measurement capabilities remain weak in most countries. Problematic in and of itself, this gap makes country-to-country comparison of air quality very difficult. An accurate comparison between any two cities is virtually impossible because it would require data from consistently calibrated ground stations. Beijing reports data on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration on an hourly basis over a publicly accessible platform. New Delhi’s reporting is nowhere near as consistent or transparent.

New Delhi may or may not have dirtier air than Beijing, but it is clearly behind in how it makes air quality information available to its citizens (see the accompanying infographic). Without this transparency or commitment air quality in India and other countries that face similar information disparities will continue to worsen.

Improving public health and the vitality of the environment will require decision makers to get serious about monitoring and reporting standards. We hope that one outcome of all this debate over air quality in China versus India will be increased public pressure for governments to follow China in providing more accessible, transparent and complete data on air quality. While taking China’s lead on transparency may seem ironic, it is no joke that Beijing has made substantial efforts to improve the air quality information it has provided its citizens in recent years (see accompanying infographic). India has simply fallen behind the curve.

This paucity of public information is really the crux of the debate we should be having. All people should have access to information about the quality of the air they breathe. Only then can we definitively say how cities in the world compare.

Yinan Song, a senior at Yale University, designed the following infographic with input from Omar Malik and William Miao, both Research Associates at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.


About the Author: Angel Hsu, PhD, is the Director of the Environmental Performance Measurement Program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

Prior to joining the online team at Greenpeace USA, Jason Daniel Schwartz was a Research Associate at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. He currently resides in New York City.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 13 Comments

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  1. 1. tuned 10:41 am 03/27/2014

    Even NASA is throwing dire warnings at you.
    Still the portfolio pigs will pour pounds of false “facts” on you.
    The scientific word for that is sociopath.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 11:18 am 03/27/2014

    The best thing to say is both cities have severe pollution problems.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jtdwyer 3:55 pm 03/27/2014

    Interesting article, well done.

    Link to this
  4. 4. plswinford 5:06 pm 03/27/2014

    Global pollution is a Tragedy of the Commons problem. The Chinese elite keep getting richer because of what they allow to our common atmosphere.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jpisar 6:00 pm 03/27/2014

    The electric car to the rescue!!!

    Link to this
  6. 6. jonathanseer 8:49 pm 03/27/2014

    That 7 million people annually should be spread far and wide.

    Info nuggets like this are the best weapon we have against the massive wall of a fear most have regarding nuclear power.

    No matter how you slice it, it has not produced death on such a scale.

    Link to this
  7. 7. CarolT 3:46 pm 03/28/2014

    That bogus death toll of 7 million is based on deliberate fraud. They exploit the coincidence of pollution and low temperatures, along with the annual peaks in deaths caused by influenza. The proof of this is that the increase in death rates can be shown to coincide with flu epidemics with even the simplest analyses. But despite pretending that pollution causes more deaths than flu, the pollution propagandists CANNOT do this. They must resort to concocting a ratio from tiny risks and then extrapolating down to low levels.

    Link to this
  8. 8. grayrain 11:15 pm 03/28/2014

    Out of curiousity, I looked up some history about “”. This CarolT person has been posting the same information for almost 10 years. It’s hilarious. It’s basically a bunch of conspiracy theories that get debunked on a variety of forums, and then he/she says everyone else’s science is wrong but his/her own. It’s all done in the typical grandiose language of a true conspiracy nut. There’s a also a lot of pro-creationist, anti-vaccine, etc. jarble along with it all. I’m probably some cross-holding, tobacco industry nutball behind the keyboard

    A note to CarolT – the internet records stuff, even all your rantings on dozens, maybe even hundreds, of forums.

    Link to this
  9. 9. CarolT 12:08 am 03/30/2014

    grayrain: That’s the typical attack of an ignorant PC bully – the ad hominem! 1) This particular page hasn’t existed for 10 years; and 2) You and the whole lot of your allies are incapable of refuting it. Or anything else. Of which you are unaware because you believe that “refuting” someone means smearing them as creationists and anti-vacciners.

    Link to this
  10. 10. gs_chandy 2:47 am 04/2/2014

    Both cities (Beijing and New Delhi) clearly have serious pollution problems – but the colours chosen for the charts/illustrations seem to indicate that the situation is very, VERY much worse in Beijing than it is in New Delhi.

    I’ve never visted Beijing – but I surely know New Delhi pretty well (though I don’t live there any more). I know that the ‘pollution status’ of New Delhi is nowadays quite ‘dismal’ compared to what it was when I lived there (late 1960s).

    True, by all indicators, the situation in Beijing is approaching “catastrophic” – it has thankfully not yet gotten to that stage in New Delhi.

    Why does SciAm not think of carrying something about HOW both these major cities could actually tackle such issues and problems, in practice on the ground?

    Are such considerations not an important part of the function of ‘science’?


    Link to this
  11. 11. Fanandala 2:20 pm 04/2/2014

    @ # 10
    Maybe I missed something, but the way I read it, Beijing is terrible, but Delhi is even worse of.

    Link to this
  12. 12. tuned 12:31 pm 04/6/2014

    @ Carol T”
    That is exactly the sort of “satanic” SPAM
    SA has been booting out.
    Hope you “hit” the goalpost.

    Link to this
  13. 13. tuned 12:37 pm 04/6/2014

    This is proof the purity of H2 vehicles is needed now and will be more in the future.
    EVs cannot me made in the tens of millions to keep up with world population growth. The lithium for their batteries is toxic and will become it’s own land pollution problem.
    H2 is inexhaustible fro the oceans.
    H2 can be made very very clean via electrolysis.
    Electrolysis can be done efficiently via solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, etc.
    The U.S. Navy has been generating H2 via electrolysis for generations. Well known tech.

    Link to this

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