New Delhi overtakes Beijing as world's most polluted city

A smoggy morning in New Delhi. Creative Commons: Tomás V, 2013

A smoggy morning in New Delhi. Creative Commons: Tomás V, 2013

New research from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) shows that New Delhi has overtaken Beijing as the world’s most polluted city.

The finding may come as a surprise to some, as coverage of Beijing’s pollution problem has been ubiquitous in the media. Beijing’s plight has rightly attracted attention; air pollution there has rendered the city “barely suitable for living,” while clouds of smog have caused flight delays and closed schools across China.

As severe as Beijing’s pollution problem is, the situation in New Delhi is even worse. India’s capital city is being blanketed under clouds of particulate matter known as PM2.5. Exposure to this fine particulate matter has been shown to cause respiratory ailments and can lead to premature death from heart and lung disease.

Air pollution is the sixth biggest killer in India.

At 575 micrograms per cubic meter, New Delhi’s PM2.5 levels are almost 50% higher than Beijing’s and 60 times higher than the level considered safe.

By way of comparison, the average PM2.5 level in Los Angeles—a smoggy city by American standards—was 7.4 micrograms per cubic meter in 2012.

PM2.5 results from ordinary fuel combustion—whether by automobiles, power plants, or wood stoves.

The combustion of diesel fuel is a particularly significant source of this pollutant. India faces an acute risk of PM2.5 originating from diesel, since many Indians rely on generators for during frequent electricity blackouts. As the number of cars in New Delhi grows by 1,400 a day, PM2.5 pollution will almost certainly see an increase without widespread and systematic regulatory action.

Such action is not without precedent. According to the CSE report, Beijing has made “consistent and aggressive efforts” to curb air pollution by capping car sales, limiting vehicle usage during periods of high pollution, and shuttering 300 of the city’s dirtiest factories.

On Thursday, officials from the Chinese State Council announced that they would make $1.65 billion available to regions that make progress towards curbing air pollution asserting, “control of PM2.5 and PM10 should be a key task.” The suggested making gains by tightening fuel quality standards and beginning to reduce the country’s runaway coal consumption.

Implementing similar reforms could help India to cut back its harmful emissions.

Already, some regions in India have begun shifting to more sustainable practices. The Indian state of Andhra Pradeshand—home to the major city of Hyderabad—just adopted an Energy Conservation Building Code for commercial and high-rise buildings, which will reduce energy consumption by boosting efficiencies.

On the national scale, India is also making strides to increase renewable power capacity. A report from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) reported that over 1 gigawatt of solar energy was added to the nation’s grid last year. India’s renewable ministry is also seeking a $500 million loan from the World Bank to build a 4,000-megawatt solar park in the western state of Rajasthan.

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