WHO Revises Guidelines: Improve Air, Save Lives

The high pollution levels in metros and big cities due to deteriorating air quality area great cause of concern. In a country like India where a significant percentage of the population lives in slums, squatter settlements and even on pavements, besides railway tracks, air pollution has a disastrous effect on their health as they are worst exposed.

The WHO has recently revised its air quality guidelines for six key pollutants, including extremely hazardous particulate matters, PM2.5 and PM10, making these stringent compared with earlier standards set in 2005.  “Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in lowand middle-income countries the hardest,” says its Director General, adding the new guidelines are ‘evidence-based and practical tool for improving quality of air.’He urged all countries to put them to use ‘to reduce suffering and save lives.’

Over seven million deaths worldwide annually are currently linked to exposure to these pollutants! The new standards mean 90% of global population and nearly 100% of people in South Asia, including India, live in areas that exceed the pollution threshold. Even at the current relaxed standard of 40 ug/m3 for annual PM2.5 averages in India versus WHO 2005 annual limit of 10 ug/m3, most Indian cities failed to meet these levels. Under National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), India has a target to reduce 20-30% of PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 2024 from 2017 levels.

The global environment action group, Greenpeace, has observed that the Indian national standard remains far more relaxed, allowing release of higher pollutants. Annual average of PM2.5 at 40ug/m3 is eight times less stringent than WHO’s and the 24-hour average standard is four times less stringent. Even at the current relaxed standards of 40ug/m3 for annual PM2.5 average in India versus WHO’s 2005 annual limit of 10ug/m3, most Indian cities failed to meet the requirement.

Recently, Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) has been developed by Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago, which is a pollution index that translates particulate air pollution into its impact on life expectancy. The report revealed that pollution in not limited to Indo-Gangetic plains but has increased geographically with States such as Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh seeing people lose an additional 2.5 to 2.9 years of life expectancy. People in northern India are still the most impacted by air pollution with around 510 million residents, losing an average of 8.5 years of their life.

Delhi is still the most impacted with an average person losing 9.7 years of his/her life in comparison to average life expectancy if WHO standards are being met. Uttar Pradesh is second in position, 9.5 years. Among the metros, Kolkata, has the second highest life expectancy loss after Delhi at 7.3 years. The study, which analysed air pollution data from 1998 till 2019 also found that while Delhi overall ranks as the worst, UP has most polluted cities with PM 2.5 concentration in Allahabad and Lucknow, 12 times that of WHO guidelines.

The AQLI report says South Asia is home to the most polluted countries on earth with Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan accounting for nearly a quarter of global population and consistently ranking among the top five most populated countries in the world though governments in the region are now beginning to respond. India’s northern part experiences extreme levels of air pollution.

Clean energy is obviously the alternative to curb air pollution. In a recent development India and the US have launched a joint platform, Climate Action and Finance Mobilization Dialogue (CAFMD), which would help both countries move towards decarburizing economies in sync with their respective commitments to deal with the challenges of climate change. Joining the International Solar Alliance in due course would be a next step for the US to drive the world towards a clean energy transition. The Dialogue is one of the two main tracks of the ‘India-US Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership’, announced by Prime Minister Modi and US President Joe Biden in April at the leaders’ summit on climate change.

Though politicians are vocal about controlling emissions, the reality is the government has double standards, as per environmentalists who say resources earmarked for environment are terribly limited. In terms of per capita emissions, the US is the largest with China a middling second and India the last. India and China have repeatedly claimed that the major burden of reduction of carbon emissions will have to be borne by rich nations,an obvious fact. However, India’s real position is more fragile than what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated. The country has been clearing forests to mine diamonds while it has ambitious plans for expanding solar power usage though  has grave inefficient electricity infrastructure.

Meanwhile, in a new stringent rating system, the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) byGerman based non-profit group, ‘Climate Analytics and Research’ of New Climate Institute,downgraded the country’s overall rating. Released on September 16, it factored in several parameters including updates on climate action targets such as mid-century ‘net zero emission and 1.5 degrees Celsius’ compatibility measures. Among 37 countries, the CAT rated the UK, Germany, Japan, US, Nepal and 12 other countries above India in either ‘almost sufficient’ and ‘insufficient’ categories due to upgradation of their respective climate action goals and other measures.

The question being debated is what policies are being adopted to combat air pollution and global warming? The most popular options the world over are an emission trading system and a national carbon tax. Emission trading is more common in Europe, China and New Zealand while carbon tax has been introduced by Japan, Mexico, Bolivia and Chile. A number of cities have adopted renewable electricity targets, including Oslo, Auckland, Brasilia and Nairobi while many cities in China, the US and Canada have introduced emission trading system.

The UN estimated the entire world has to achieve net-zero emission by 2050 to stay under two-degree Celsius warning at the pre-industrial level and India is under tremendous pressure to announce its own net-zero year. This year is being seen as vital for the global climate debate. 2021-end, policymakers from various countries will meet and are expected to come to the table with new or enhanced pledges under the Paris Agreement.

India’s Intended National Determined Contribution (INDC)requires it to achieve three main goals, including increasing cumulative electricity generation installed capacity from non-fossil sources of energy to 40% by 2030, which currently stands at around 38%; lower emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% compared to 2005 levels by 2030 and create additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes through additional forest and tree cover. Within this is included a commitment to install 175GW of renewable energy by 2022 comprising 100GW of solar, 60GW of wind, and 10GW of bio-energy, and 5GW of small hydropower projects.

Given India’s present positionregarding human development and other social indicators, the debate is whether it should pledge any target year for its net-zero or not. It would be advisable for the country to implement the above pledges for future and evolve a mechanism to decide what action is needed today. India’s present commitments are not driven by climate mitigation but by domestic concerns of job creation, providing enough electricity, lighting-up homes etc. which, too are important, but the goal must balance development with environmental concerns.—INFA



The Dispatch is present across a number of social media platforms. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for exciting videos; join us on Facebook, Intagram and Twitter for quick updates and discussions. We are also available on the Telegram. Follow us on Pinterest for thousands of pictures and graphics. We care to respond to text messages on WhatsApp at 8082480136 [No calls accepted]. To contribute an article or pitch a story idea, write to us at [email protected] |Click to know more about The Dispatch, our standards and policies   

About the author

Dhurjati Mukherjee

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment