There is a silent killer in our midst, and we must act together to stop it.
Air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, as reports from various agencies have highlighted, is the single largest environmental risk to human health. Estimates suggest that as many as 7 million people die prematurely every year from factors attributable to air pollution. Nine out of 10 people in the world today continue to breathe dirty air that damages their lungs.
The India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative led by the Indian Council of Medical Research recognised air pollution as the second highest risk factor affecting disease and mortality. Air pollution kills more people every year than tobacco smoking. What this means is that on a poor day, breathing is like smoking continuously – except that we don’t get to choose not to smoke. And children are even more vulnerable than adults.
We know that toxic gases and nanoscopic particles that slip through our bodies’ defences come from a variety of sources: the burning of fossil fuels such as coal for energy and transport; the use of dirty fuels; construction; home cooking, heating and lighting; the chemicals and mining industries; and the burning of waste, forests and crop residues.
This means it’s not just our health that’s at stake – it’s the earth’s too. The reasons we breathe toxic air are also the reasons behind environmental damage, global warming, and reduced crop growth and agricultural productivity, which in turn reduce food security. Pollutants like black carbon, produced by diesel engines, burning trash and dirty cookstoves, are extremely harmful when inhaled, speed up glacier and mountain snow and ice melt, and exacerbate local weather extremes.
Reducing emissions, therefore, offers a dual opportunity – to improve public health and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next few decades. The good news is we have many solutions and policy options to fight air pollution.
So how can we fix the quality of our air?
India has declared a “war against pollution” to combat poor air quality levels in Indian cities and towns. The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), launched earlier this year by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), is the country’s first overarching policy framework on air quality. It calls for a 20-30% reduction in particulate pollution over the next five years –a goal that could have significant payoffs when actioned.
One study suggests that successful implementation could mean the average person in India would live 1.3 years longer, and people in very polluted areas would live almost three years longer. The government has taken other steps, too, such as setting up the International Solar Alliance, focusing attention on renewable solar energy, and the Ujjwala Yojana, to connect poor households to green cooking fuels like LPG, which reduces indoor air pollution and protects vulnerable groups like women, children and the elderly.
Because toxic air is attributable to a combination of household, industrial, vehicular and environmental factors, any policy on air pollution must be coordinated across sectors, and address local conditions and sources of pollution.
While the expertise of specialised agencies like the Central Pollution Control Board is invaluable, authorities mandated to deal with urban planning, industry, health, transport, agriculture and waste management must be roped into the effort. India will need a mix of schemes to incentivise adoption of cleaner technologies and practices, pollution reduction measures, increased monitoring and stringent enforcement of the existing regulations.
Other countries have also gone through a rapid growth curve with similar struggles. India can learn from their experience. Five years ago, China launched its own “battle for blue skies” after scenes of heavy smog hanging over Beijing hit the international media.
In response, the central government empowered local officials to enact environmental solutions as they saw fit; small coal-fired boilers in urban areas were phased out; stricter emissions standards for vehicles were rolled out; and households were given incentives to switch to clean heating.
As a result, between 2013 to 2017, China reduced its air pollution by about 32%. Globally, there is momentum and commitment in the form of resolutions passed by United Nations Environment Assembly and the World Health Assembly to encourage national and global action on air pollution.
The UN, through its agencies, is committed to work with the government to promote less polluting industry, transport and domestic fuels, as well as to reduce the burning of crop residue, especially rice straw in north India.
There are also initiatives to adopt cleaner transport, and to clean up home and hearth. The UN supports evidence on the health impacts, shares health advisories and creates awareness to advocate for action and evidence-based policies.
We are also building capacity in in the methodologies for health impact assessments. An inter-agency initiative in partnership with the MoEFCC is underway to develop a strategy on how best to implement the NCAP, leveraging specialised knowledge and outlining a roadmap for effective coordination between institutions.
Fighting air pollution is everybody’s responsibility. We need a coordinated and sustained effort with the active involvement of all sectors, including the government, industry, community-based organisations, academia, communities and individuals. It is in ambitious initiatives such as the NCAP that hope lies. With resolute policy implementation and resolve for strict enforcement and programmatic responses that ensure concerted action, we can, one day soon, again breathe easy.
The writers are heads of agency in India, respectively, for UN Environment, the World Health Organization, UN Industrial Development Organization, UN Development Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization.