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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Combating air pollution in New Delhi with Chinese caveats

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on November 25, 2019 and can be accessed here.

My friend from Peking University remembers how at the height of the Beijing “airpocalypse” of 2013, attendance suddenly dropped: Out of a class of 200 students, ten would show up. These are regular stories about pollution: of dorms offering students reduced prices so that they could afford purifiers, of hospitals filling up with patients, of people who braved the pollution to go about their days anyway. But these stories are no longer true. For the first time in 2019, Beijing has exited the list of most polluted cities in the world. The Communist Party’s “War on Pollution” has succeeded. We should learn how the Beijing policymakers accomplished the task, and apply those lessons to clean up the putrid air that is Delhi.

But the story isn’t as clear cut as that.

What are the main causes of the smog in Beijing?

According to a study by National Air Pollution Prevention and Control Centre the main causes for the smog in Beijing are heavy industry and reliance on coal and road-dominated transport, particularly in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. Yes, Beijing has come a long way since the 1990s when citizens or officials equally didn’t care about air pollution. Through the 2000s, the city switched from coal to gas for its power supply, cracked down on vehicular emissions, and improved forecasting at the time of the Beijing Olympics. But all of this has come into fruition only over the last two years with the number of “hazardous air” days when decreasing annually.

Beijing does have a lot of lessons for New Delhi, particularly with regards to monitoring and cutting vehicular emissions. The 2018 World Air Quality Report by Air Visual points out, “China Mainland has the world’s most numerous and far-reaching monitoring network, with around 1,500 monitors managed by the central government and a total of over 5,000 monitors managed at a central, provincial, municipal and county level.” On the other hand, "The majority of South Asia, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, lack government-supported real-time public stations.”

Unfortunately, crop burning and coal burning are not the same thing. Beijing has dealt with its air pollution — by offloading it somewhere else. The capital city outsourced its emissions and its dirtier industries to poorer hinterlands. The unintended consequence of this move is that overall carbon dioxide emissions will be 3.6 times higher, and water consumption will be 2.9 times higher. Delhi, on the other hand, cannot afford to outsource its pollution.

A question of the right balance

The “War on Pollution” signified strong political will of Chinese policymakers to seriously tackle the issue. In April this year, a ‘name and shame’ session was held in which officials from the provinces of Guangxi, Chongqing, and Jiangxi were reprimanded for not meeting targets on air pollution. The narrative is only strengthening as blue skies continue to reign over Beijing. However, this begs the question, how will China continue to cut down polluting industries considering its economic slowdown?

Over the last couple of years, public awareness about pollution is increasing but this has not resulted in the public consciousness. Even in Beijing, the adoption of pollution masks has remained low, particularly among younger, urban populations. In fact, there’s even a joke that the masks are “心里安慰 (or Xīnlǐ ānwèi which literally translates to ‘solace for the heart’) meaning that they do little for our wearied lungs.  However, in Delhi, hearts and lungs are both weary, waiting for our policymakers to take pollution seriously.

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