The World Air Quality Report 2021, Explained

Air pollution

A recent World Air Quality Report shows that India’s air pollution problem deteriorated immensely in the year 2021.

Not only has New Delhi been crowned with the unenviable honour of being the world’s most polluted capital city (for the second successive year), but India as a nation has also fared at the bottom of the pool by emerging as the fifth-most polluted country in the world.

Let’s see about the finer details illustrated in the report and understand as to why the country’s reputation in breathability remains unchanged year after year.

Key Points in the Report

● The report is based on PM 2.5 air quality data from 6,745 cities spread across 117 countries, regions and territories.

● Out of the 100 most polluted cities in the world, 63 are in India.

Not a single country managed to meet WHO’s air quality standard in 2021.

● The estimated daily economic cost of air pollution stands at $8bn which is roughly 3–4% of the world’s gross product.

Key Points in the Report About India

● The country is home to 11 of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia.

● The most polluted place in the world is Bhiwadi in Rajasthan followed by Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh.

● Air pollution is the second-biggest risk factor for disease in the country.

● The economic cost of air pollution in India is estimated to exceed $150bn annually.

● On an average, Indian cities exceeded WHO’s air quality guideline by more than 10 times.

Pollution in India

Back to the Basics

Few things to understand first. WHO’s air quality guideline measures air quality by the number of lethal microscopic pollutants present in the air at any given point of time.

Now, the air as we see and breathe, contains a whole gamut of particulate matter in different shapes and sizes. However, the most dangerous and the ones to watch out for are the PM 2.5 particles. Decades of study have shown that PM 2.5 particles pose the greatest air quality risk to human beings. Due to their fine size, they can get deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.

WHO says that the recommended PM 2.5 concentration in air should be 5 µg/m³. But IQAir’s data suggests that no country in the world has conformed to this threshold (on an average annual basis). This literally means that nowhere around the world is safe in terms of particulate matter breathability.

For those of us who exercise a fair bit of cynicism, this seems like a reality too hard to swallow. In fact, the Government of India has gone so far as to dismiss the World Air Quality Report 2020 saying that it was largely based on satellite and secondary data and not validated by “proper ground truthing”.

Gerund errors aside, that is a bold conviction to have unless one is certain that the methods employed in the report are fallacious. So, let’s see who (and what) was behind the making of this particular air quality report.

What is IQAir?

It’s a privately-owned Swiss company founded in 1963 by two brothers who built an air filter technology for coal ovens in German residential areas. The idea was to help reduce black dust build-up on the walls and help restore healthy air quality in an area where the residents had been long plagued by asthma and other breathing disorders.

Soon, the company expanded to research and development and started building in-house air purification systems. It routinely publishes research studies on global air quality and pollution control which have been widely accepted.

The organisation is also a recognised technological partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and curates data from the latter which claims to host the world’s largest databank of PM 2.5 pollution data.

Data Used in the Study

IQAir has categorically stated that it doesn’t rely on satellite data and the report is generated exclusively from PM 2.5 measurements obtained by ground-level monitoring systems. The data sets compiled are a mix of both real time as well as historical data that was collected from a wide range of agencies including governments, non-governmental organisations, educational institutions, non-profit institutions, regulatory bodies, privately-owned organisations and individuals.

The reason why PM 2.5 has been taken as the benchmark parameter of air quality measurement is because of its notoriety of impact on human health and environment. It is also the most dominant constituent in several effluents known to mankind starting from internal combustion engines, power generators, industrial processes, agricultural processes, construction, coal and wood burning etc. In fact, naturally occurring phenomena like dust storms, sandstorms and wildfires are also big contributors of PM 2.5.

India is one of the countries where publicly available air quality monitoring station data has reportedly increased in 2021. Based on these figures, India’s annual average PM 2.5 levels reached 58.1 µg/m³ — almost 11 times the WHO-recommended limit. At least 48% of India’s cities exceeded the level of 50 µg/m³ in 2021.

It’s worthwhile mentioning here that the pandemic had reportedly put the brakes on India’s deteriorating air quality to a considerable extent with PM 2.5, sulphur oxide and nitrous oxide levels reducing way below 2018 levels. The latest report, although attests to this trend, also emphasises that there has been a reversal in that break since the lockdowns lifted with levels rising to an alarming high now.

What’s Behind the Consistently Poor Show?

For year after year and decade after decade, successive Governments coming to power in India have failed to keep a check on the worsening air quality levels. Every year, a greater number of cities break embarrassing pollution records and more of India’s population slips into the zones where air quality is below the recommended standards.

The reason is fairly straightforward — there is no zeal to act on tackling air pollution on a war footing as of now, at least at the institutional level. Problems like lack of adequate funding, lack of tighter emission standards and slow progress of monitoring stations all act in toxic sync when the buffer mechanisms that ought to work against them are either depleted or non-existent. Despite multiple international climate resolutions making it to the floor of the Parliament and several climate commitments announced by the Cabinet, there is no pragmatic initiative in sight.

For instance, the issue of stubble burning that has been shown to contribute to the noxious air quality in the National Capital Region hasn’t merited any credible action due to heavy politicisation and bureaucratic reticence. Countries like China, on the other hand, have shown marked improvements in air quality in the last five years largely driven by emission control and reduction in coal power plant activity. The Government of India, however, is on an opposite trajectory with plans to INCREASE coal production to meet increasing domestic demand which is perhaps reflective of the economic growth lifecycle.

The city with the cleanest air in India is Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu with a PM 2.5 level of 15.1 µg/m³, which is still thrice the WHO-recommended level. If the quality of life were exclusively proportional to the quality of air, then Indians would be better advised to start investing in either one of two things: a robust air quality improvement framework or mass production of pulmonary supplements.

(Originally published March 24th 2022 in the TRANSFIN E-O-D Newsletter)

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