The Fog of War Over India’s Polluted Skies

The United States is putting pressure on India to get serious about air pollution. But can New Delhi keep its factories humming and cut smog at the same time?


On Feb. 18, shortly after President Barack Obama’s visit to India, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) AirNow system would begin operating in India in a few months.

There’s an interesting backstory here. Back in 2008, the year China hosted the Summer Olympics, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing installed a device to measure air quality, and began tweeting data on the dire state of the air at that location. Unsurprisingly, that promptly drew the ire of the Chinese government. But by 2010, the year of the Shanghai Expo, there was an official collaboration in place between AirNow and Shanghai officials to report on the quality of the air in the city.

U.S. missions in India, as of last fall, were already sharing air quality measurements in their local areas, just as they were in Beijing. Building on all this, when AirNow launches in India, it will make publicly available the levels of particulate matter that are 2.5 microns or less. Known as PM 2.5, these particles are the tiniest of airborne pollutants, and contribute to a range of diseases, including asthma and heart disease.

Strangely enough, AirNow is expected to go live around the same time that the Indian government launches its own National Air Quality Index, a “one number-one color-one description” system, similar to the EPA’s, that indexes eight pollutants, including PM 2.5. The ostensible rationale for introducing AirNow to India, according to Kerry, is to provide Americans living and traveling there with reliable information about air pollution. Another reason: In India, just as in China, official measurements often understate the true level of air pollution. Both Kerry and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy also credit U.S. monitoring of air quality in China with generating public pressure on the Chinese government to do something about air pollution.

Kerry also said that AirNow would “expand international cooperation” around air pollution — meaning that when Indians finally wake up to the hazy horror they’re living in, they’ll begin turning the screws on their own government to do something. Or so Washington hopes. And in the wake of its landmark agreement last November with China, which has committed to peaking its emissions by 2030, Washington seems keen to ratchet up the pressure on New Delhi in advance of the upcoming climate change summit in Paris later this year.

Unlike in authoritarian China, where a small group of officials hammer out policy behind closed doors, any similar shift on climate change in India would require a wholesale attitude shift among its voters for the issue to actually matter to politicians. Green advocates are clearly aware of this, and, as in China, a public relations battle to win hearts and minds appears to be playing out in India, too. Leading the charge among the international media is the New York Times, which reports frequently on the poor quality of Delhi’s air. Meanwhile, the Times of India, the largest circulation English-language daily in the country, launched a campaign called “Let Delhi Breathe” to raise awareness of the issue.

But just as in China, the public relations battle will be joined by those professing skepticism about the science of air pollution and by business and political interests for whom the primary concern is economic development, not the environment.

The fog of misinformation will be at least as thick as the pollution itself. As was once the case for much of China, residents of large Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai are used to being told that poor visibility is due to “fog,” not airborne pollution. And there is already pushback from within India against the unfavorable publicity surrounding airborne pollution. Reacting to a World Health Organization report blasting the dire state of the air in India, a leading Indian atmospheric scientist claimed that Delhi is not, in fact, the most polluted city in the world. Instead, he suggested that the “hype” around the issue is a bigger problem than the quality of the air itself. But such perceptions may start to change if AirNow readings are widely publicized and shared on social media, as they were in China. That could spur the Indian government to action.

Change may already be afoot, at least in terms of the rhetoric. During Obama’s January visit to India, he discussed climate change at length with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said that concerns about climate change had created “pressure” on his government to act. While no China-style deal resulted from the meeting between the two leaders, India reaffirmed its commitment to shifting away from fossil fuels and towards clean and renewable energy sources such as a solar and wind power.

But in his speech on Feb. 28 introducing the government’s budget, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley paid scant attention to the green agenda, a fact noted by Vikram Mehta, a former oil executive and now the executive chairman of Brookings India, which is heavily invested in research and advocacy in renewable energy. Mehta expressed disappointment that Jaitley’s speech did not “dedicate at least a few sentences to the importance of weakening the linkage between economic growth, energy demand and the environment.”

Academics have also been enlisted in the public relations battle. A recent study in Economic & Political Weekly, a leading Indian academic journal, whose lead author is Michael Greenstone, a professor at the University of Chicago and a former chief economist of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, argues that PM 2.5 will lead to reduced life expectancy for many Indians. The study’s headline finding is that if PM 2.5 levels in major Indian urban areas were brought down to the Indian government’s own mandated safe maximum levels, there would be an average increase in life expectancy of 3.2 years for 660 million people, or a gain of 2.1 billion life years.

Understandably, the study made headlines around the world. And what’s more, one of the policy recommendations Greenstone and his team put forward is improved monitoring of air quality — which, perhaps coincidentally, dovetails nicely with the objectives of the State Department and EPA. It’s also noteworthy that the study appeared in a top Indian publication, not in a major American academic journal, which would be the norm for a study by top U.S.-based academic economists. Presumably the aim was to increase its impact in India.

Also, coincidentally, around the same time the study came out, news reports in India suggested that the U.S., Japanese, and German embassies in Delhi were contemplating reducing staff tenures from three to two years due to concerns about poor air quality. The combined impact of all of these things coming together may well have an impact on the debate within India.

Greenstone himself believes that public concerns of Indians themselves over India’s poor air quality will shape the policies on greenhouse gas emissions. According to him, China didn’t succumb to U.S. pressure. Instead, its leaders came to believe that poor air was bad for its economy, and that it was in their national interest to combat climate change. Presumably, Greenstone and other green advocates believe that something similar will happen in India — and that perceptions in India will be shaped, in part, by studies such as this.

The problem with the Greenstone study is that it documents only the benefits and not the costs of reducing airborne pollution. While it’s plausible, as the study argues, that reducing emissions will increase life expectancy, what it makes no attempt to quantify are the large economic costs associated with doing so. High concentrations of PM 2.5 and other airborne pollutants are due principally to emissions from coal-fired plants that produce electricity, as well as vehicular traffic.

Short of shutting down power plants and turning major cities into pedestrian-only zones, how exactly would India accomplish a reduction? And, if the country could do it, what would be the cost in terms of lost jobs and economic opportunity? What is needed is research that documents the costs of what Greenstone proposes. Just looking at the benefits presents an incomplete and misleading guide to making sensible public policy choices.

The reality is that advanced economies such as the United States began tackling climate change only after finishing the process of industrialization, which helped them become rich countries. And the state of the environment while they were getting rich wasn’t pretty.

India is still a poor country, where 300 million people still have no access to electricity, and in which a little less than that number live below the poverty line. The harsh reality is that given these grim figures, economic development will rightfully trump concerns about air pollution for at least the next few decades. Only now is the Indian economy starting to takeoff, following several years in the doldrums. Soon, India’s growth rate will overtake China’s. A big push to reduce air pollution now would stall India’s growth engines before take off.

It’s noteworthy that the approaching launch of AirNow has been met with silence from Indian officials. Perhaps they’re hoping that the system will fly below the radar, although this seems unlikely. Or perhaps they expect that India’s own shift toward green energy, including the coal tax hike announced in the recent budget, will silence critics. Fat chance. You can bet that when AirNow goes live in the coming months, it will get daily coverage in newspapers, television, and social media, just as it did in China. Everyone loves a ranking. And, again, just as in China, you can bet that there will be news stories about expats declining opportunities to work in India because of concern about air quality.

After all, if the famously obtuse officials in Beijing buckled under the public pressure over air pollution, how long will Indian officials, better known for reacting to situations than anticipating them, be able to hold out before they cave?


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