In early November, a thick layer of smog choked Delhi, prompting the Indian government to close schools, shut down construction sites, temporarily cease operations at coal-fired power plants. In the country’s capital city, levels of harmful particles in the air were so high that they could not be measured by most air quality instruments. Those that could measure the pollution found levels of particulate matter — tiny particles that can penetrate deep into lungs and cross the blood-brain barrier — to be 16 times the safe limit.
It was, according to the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based nonprofit, the worst air quality that Delhi had seen in 17 years. But it was not a one-time phenomenon for the rapidly developing country. According to a new study of global air pollution, some 1.1 million people die prematurely every year in India due to air pollution, making it the one of the deadliest countries in terms of air quality in the world.
Worldwide, air pollution-related deaths are also rising: particulate-matter related air pollution was responsible for 4.2 million deaths in 2015, or about 7.6 percent of all deaths worldwide.
According to the study, premature deaths in India have increased 50 percent between 1990 and 2015. Those numbers rival China, where levels of dangerous particulate matter, and corresponding premature deaths, have largely stabilized in recent years — though pollution remains a concern for Chinese officials and researchers.
In India, rapid industrialization, population growth, and a vulnerable, aging population combine to make air pollution particularly deadly, Michael Brauer, professor of environment and health relationships at the University of British Columbia and an author of the study, told the New York Times. India has also seen an increase in vehicle traffic, as well as energy from dirty sources like coal, wood, and dung.
“You can almost think of this as the perfect storm for India,” Brauer said.
In China, the government has taken aggressive steps to curb air pollution by placing limits on coal power and vehicle traffic. In an effort to transition away from coal-fired power, China has also begun investing heavily in renewable energy, most recently announcing a $360 billion investment in clean energy by 2020. The Chinese government also recently canceled plans to build some 103 coal-fired power plants, citing air pollution as one of the driving factors in that decision. Still, China remains fairly dependent on coal-generated power, and its aspirational limit on coal-generated electric capacity — 1,100 gigawatts by 2020 — would be three times as much as the coal-fired capacity in the United States.
India has also set a lofty goal for its transition to renewable energy, with plans to obtain around 60 percent of the country’s electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027. That would put the country on track to beat its commitments made during the Paris climate conference in 2015 years ahead of schedule. As the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, that would be a big win for climate — but it would also help cut down on the air pollution and particulate matter plaguing Indian cities. Over the past year, India has received over $20 million in investments aimed at building out the country’s solar capacity in order to meet the country’s growing demand for electricity; currently, some 240 million people in India lack access to electricity, meaning they often turn to polluting sources like wood and animal dung. A Delhi-based research group also suggested earlier this week that if the cost of renewable energy continues to decline at its current rate, India could be completely coal-free by 2050.