By Michael Greenstone, Rohini Pande, Nicholas Ryan and Anant Sudarshan
was once known as “the big smoke”. Osaka, Japan, was the “smoke capital.” Los
Angeles was the “smog capital of the world”. And most recently, Beijing gained
notice as a major pollution capital. While cities are hotbeds for vibrant
culture, economic activity and growth, they too often become air pollution
capitals during times of rapid development. Delhi, like many of India’s cities,
is no different.
their time of development, each of these major cities felt the pain of
pollution: greater rates of sickness, lost work time and lost loved ones. Each
chose to confront this pollution, resulting in measurably cleaner skies and
healthier citizens. Now, India faces the same choice. While India’s
policymakers will need to find the right balance between improvements in health
and costs to industry, history shows that, with the right policies, it can
improve its citizen’s health and continue to prosper.
first step is for India to acknowledge that the heavy smog that too often
blankets Delhi and other Indian cities is harming citizens’ health. In a recent
study, we found high pollution cuts most Indian lives short by three years. Our
study is just one of many linking pollution to health threats. In a study
commissioned by the Central Pollution Control Board, scientists from India’s
top cancer institutes tracked 11,000 schoolchildren in Delhi and other cities
for three years. They found that particulate pollution had likely caused
irreversible reduction in the children’s lung function. Now, doctors are
telling patients to leave the city before their conditions worsen.
doesn’t need to be this way. We’ve found that improved compliance with Indian
air quality standards for airborne particulate matter would save 2.1 billion
life-years for more than half of the population exposed to this deadly pollution.
And those standards are weaker than what the World Health Organisation
recommends. So, if the standards were stricter, it would be possible to save
even more life-years.
are many useful ideas India could consider that have been successful elsewhere
in the world in reducing pollution without high costs. One way to improve
compliance with current standards could be for India to increase its use of
technology in monitoring air pollution emissions from industrial plants, and to
make this data easily accessible to the public (for example, by putting it
online). Intermittent sampling of industries, done once or twice a year, is not
enough for regulators to get a clear picture of who is polluting the most.
there are not enough monitoring stations for the public to learn about
pollution in the air they breathe. As a point of comparison, Beijing has 35
monitoring stations, while Delhi has only 21, and too many Indian cities have
even fewer. Increased ambient air monitoring would help researchers and State
Pollution Control Boards to identify pollution hot spots and create more public
pressure for compliance.
a “polluter pays” system is another way countries have successfully reduced
pollution. Currently, India’s flagship environmental laws are built on an
outdated criminal system with draconian penalties, such as industry closure,
which are costly and difficult to enforce. We do not want to close industry
down; we want to clean it up. A greater reliance on civil rather than criminal
penalties would provide polluters with an incentive to reduce pollution.
a market-based approach, like an emissions trading system, is another proven
tool used by the United States, European Union and now China. Such an approach
reduces pollution at the lowest possible cost, so as to encourage the economic
growth that is vital for India’s future. This approach is flexible enough to
work for many pollutants, and on many scales. In the city of Los Angeles, for
example, trading systems and tighter fuel standards have played critical roles
in cleaning up the air.
industry, traffic congestion, the burning of waste and other sources also emit
pollution into the air. As such, it’s important to consider innovative reforms
such as congestion pricing, improved public transit, and more stringent fuel
standards. Reducing pollution will be less costly if reductions come from all
all breathe the same air. Air pollution harms us, whether we are poor or rich;
whether we walk, pedal a bike, drive a car, or sit in the back seat to be
driven. It seeks out even the most powerful, as is evidenced by the notorious
asthmatic cough of Delhi’s own chief minister.
India does not have to tolerate this threat. Actions to improve monitoring,
make polluters pay, and put a price on emissions can be implemented in
cost-effective ways so that they are compatible with the economic growth that
is vital for India’s future. Great countries and cities throughout history have
never stalled by trying in earnest to cut air pollution.
comes to mind when we think of London, Osaka, and Los Angeles today? Only that
they are some of the richest, most vibrant cities in the world.
(Greenstone is Milton Friedman professor in economics and
director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Pande is
Mohammed Kamal professor of public policy and director of the Evidence for
Policy Design initiative at Harvard University’s Centre for International
Development. Ryan is assistant professor of economics at Yale University.
Sudarshan is executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago’s