As world leaders meet in Germany to implement the Paris climate agreement, major global hubs are already suffering the consequences of poor climate policy.
Residents of Delhi, India, the world’s most polluted capital city, are facing a crisis due to staggering pollution levels. Doctors in the city declared a public health emergency this week as smog levels rose so far beyond normal levels that schools were closed and residents were told to not to leave their buildings.
“This is a public health emergency, so everyone should stay indoors, no jogging, running or walking outside,” said the head of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), Dr. Krishan Kumar Aggarwal.
Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, addressed the lethal combination of fog and pollution on Twitter.
“Delhi has become a gas chamber. Every year this happens during this part of year. We have to find a [solution] to crop burning in adjoining states,” he wrote, referencing a practice common in the states north of Delhi. Around 35 million tonnes are burned every year in Punjab and Haryana.
PM2.5, the smog particles that are considered the most damaging to humans, have reached 40 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit, putting Delhi’s nearly 19 million residents in severe danger. And they aren’t alone. Across India’s border, the bustling city of Lahore, Pakistan is also facing a crisis. Known for its notorious winter fog, Pakistan’s cultural capital has long grappled with canceled flights and poor driving conditions during the winter. Caused in part by proximity to the Himalayas, Lahore’s fog is a natural phenomenon. But “fog season” has been unusually bad in recent years, as the fog collides with severe pollution, causing a deadly, devastating smog.
Reducing pollution is a challenge in countries like India and Pakistan, which are home to major global cities with exploding populations, but lack the infrastructure and financial advantages of Western nations. That struggle is playing out on an even more severe scale in nearby China, particularly in the city of Beijing, where pollution levels have long sparked global alarm.
But Delhi surpassed Beijing’s pollution levels tenfold this week. The city’s residents have complained of headaches, coughing, and other troubling symptoms.
“The situation as it exists today is the worst that I have seen in my 35 years staying in the city of Delhi,” lung surgeon Arvind Kumar told NDTV. “As a doctor, I have no problem saying that the situation today is a public health emergency. If you want to protect people, we should be ordering the evacuation of Delhi. Closing down all schools. Closing down all offices.”
Delhi’s crisis is unfolding as world leaders meet in Bonn, Germany, for the aforementioned 23rd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — COP23 — to address the goals of the Paris agreement and lay out a plan to meet its terms going forward. The agreement, which brought together nearly every country in the world to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That goal is becoming increasingly challenging for developing economies in particular — no thanks to the United States.
President Donald Trump announced in May that the United States would withdraw from the Paris agreement, angering world leaders and dealing a massive blow to global climate efforts. In announcing his intention to withdraw, Trump singled out countries like India and China, accusing developing economies of abusing the terms of the agreement.
“China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement,” Trump declared. “India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it: India can double their coal production. We’re supposed to get rid of ours.”
Trump also honed in on the Green Climate Fund, a U.N. effort intended to help finance developing countries in their efforts to become sustainable. Announcing an end to U.S. contributions to the “so-called Green Climate Fund — nice name,” Trump emphasized his scorn for the climate financing project.
The GCF — which is funded through voluntary contributions — pre-dates the Paris agreement. But the fund is intended to help low and middle-income nations achieve economic growth through green technologies, something the Paris agreement also emphasizes. For countries that rely on coal, oil, and gas for both power and economic survival, that’s crucial — in some instances, life-saving.
Delhi’s smog crisis, like those in Lahore, Beijing, and elsewhere, is preventable, though the effort to convince officials to act has been difficult.
Pollution levels in India, Pakistan, and China are high largely because of a disproportionate reliance on coal. Some 304 million Indians lack access to electricity and the country has maintained that it therefore has the right to emit without restraint, just as Western nations have for decades. But concerted efforts by a number of key players, including the Obama administration, ultimately convinced India to sign the Paris agreement two years ago.
Now, India, the world’s fourth-biggest carbon emitter, is on track to meet its climate targets under the agreement. China, the world’s biggest emitter, is as well. (China is also the world’s largest producer of renewable energy.) But that progress could be hindered if countries like the United States continue to waffle on climate financing.
Trump has already stated the United States will not continue its pledged contributions to the GCF, reneging on at least $2 billion in promised support. That makes climate finance conversations even more crucial — something developing nations are planning to emphasize at COP23.
“What kind of trust are we generating in the process itself?” asked Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s chief negotiator at COP23, who has probed the commitments of richer nations, as well as their green investments in poorer countries.
“We need access to finance to be able to access the technology,” Gebru Jember Endalew, chair of the U.N. Least Developed Countries Group, added on Thursday. “[We] face the unique and unprecedented challenge of lifting our people out of poverty and achieving sustainable development without relying on fossil fuels.”
While pollution in Delhi and other major cities has heightened anxieties over the future of climate financing, the Trump administration appears unconcerned. The president himself skipped out on the conference, as did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt.