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The Quest For Clean Air

Air pollution is costing lives. Too many of us are breathing dirty, toxic air and facing its direct consequences.

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Children play without wearing any protection while the air is engulfed with thick haze from the forest fires at Sei Ahass village, in Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia

Air pollution has become the biggest environmental concern globally.  It has rapidly taken over the space once occupied by issues of poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water. News is flowing across countries on how air pollution is restricting mobility, causing severe health issues and eventually leading to premature deaths. A recent UNICEF report also resonates Greenpeace’s warning that air pollution severely affects children, women, old, and young alike. The bitter truth remains that air pollution is increasingly engulfing our clean space.

Mary Poppins in air pollution mask flies over Westminster to highlight air pollution in the UK,
Mary Poppins in Air Pollution Protest in London

In 2014, a shocking World Health Organisation report ranked 13 Indian cities in the top 20 most polluted cities of the world, but very little has moved towards improvement since 2014; in fact the menace is growing exponentially, not only in India but also in Southeast Asian and European countries. The systemic failure has allowed increase in air pollution to a level where it has put public health and life at grave risk. Even London and Paris are battling extreme smog conditions.

The electricity pylons in Liguo Village are covered in advertisements for respiratory illness cures and other types of therapy. Liu Guobao from Mashan Village has leukemia. His wife, Chu Yanhua, suffers from cerebral thrombus. They depend on each other to stay alive. In 2014 they sent their son to join the army.
Victims Affected by Heavy Air Pollution in China

India overtakes China

Results of a study conducted in 2016 by Global Burden of Disease (GBD) revealed that India’s air is deadlier than China’s. It is the first time ever the mortality figures for outdoor air pollution in India have been shown to exceed those in China. Greenpeace India’s analysis of this study showed that in 2015, there were on an average 3,283 premature deaths per day as a result of particulate matter and ozone pollution, compared to 3,233 in China. While in India the numbers have risen by 24% over the past decade, making 2015 the worst year on record, deaths in China have stabilised, with a 3% drop from 2005.

Delhi has been recording dangerous levels of air pollution in spite of the largest number of NAQI stations located in the capital.
Dangerous levels of pollution in India’s capital

Air quality monitoring snag

Only two of India’s ten most polluted cities are covered by the government’s real-time air quality monitoring system. According to the Greenpeace India Airpocalypse report, only Delhi and Faridabad have real-time air quality monitoring systems in place, leaving behind more than a billion people unprepared and at risk.

Greenpeace Energydesk further analysed and highlighted that less than 10% of India’s 380 urban agglomerations are covered realtime, due to lack of air pollution monitoring systems.


Policy-comparison in four major economies




European Union

Change in satellite based PM2.5 levels from 2010 to 2015) –




-20% (from 2005 to 2013)

PM2.5 trend

Increasing steadily for past 10 years; 2015 was the worst year on record

Falling since 2011; 2015 was the best on record

Falling since measurements started

Falling since measurements started

PM2.5 in capital city, annual (µg/m3)





PM2.5 air quality standard, annual (µg/m3)




25 (from 2020, 20)

Deaths per day from air pollution in 2013





Online PM2.5 monitoring

39 stations in 23 cities (as of Feb 2016)

1,500 stations in 900 cities & towns

770 stations in 540 cities & towns

1,000 stations in 400 cities & towns

Share of thermal power plants with basic pollution controls (desulphurization, particle controls)





Deadline for meeting national air quality standards


2030; most key cities have an interim target for 2017

2012; violating areas are currently implementing new plans

25 by 2015

20 by 2020

Consequences for missing targets


Promotion of province governors depends on meeting targets

States must adopt emission reduction measures into law that are demonstrated to enable meeting targets; must account for pollution transport into downwind states; periodic review

Cities & countries face legal action for not meeting standards

A hazy morning has made  the Taj Mahal look like a dark silhouette against a foggy foreground.
Pollution Around The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Action and way forward

There has to be a right mix of government initiatives, action plan & people initiatives to combat air pollution. Lots of things contribute to the current crisis, but there’s one obvious place to start – accepting gaps and making change in our choices. Government alone cannot bring change, our support and actions are mandatory to uproot air pollution. Clean air is a basic necessity, so ask the government for a National Clean Air Action Plan!

Madhulika Verma is a Senior Media Specialist at Greenpeace India