Seeing clearly: solving Asia’s air pollution crisis

Published on 9 April 2019

Patrick Schröder

Research Fellow

Shilpi Srivastava

Research Fellow

Wei Shen

Research Fellow

Globally, exposure to air pollution is now the single largest environmental risk to public health, with outdoor and indoor air pollution estimated to be responsible for at least 7 million deaths per year.

Cycling with a mask‘, CIFOR, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite being a global problem – with the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimating that 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits – the health burden of air pollution is concentrated in developing countries, with India and China alone accounting for over half of total estimated premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution. In addition, the burden of air pollution within countries falls disproportionately on the poorest, who are both most exposed to air pollution, and least equipped to deal with its harmful effects.

There’s now an increasing recognition not only of the urgency of the global air pollution crisis, but also of the interconnections between air pollution and climate change (and the potential co-benefits from their mitigation). A recent study finds that the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions could be fully compensated with the health co-benefits alone for China and India, with even the extra effort required to meet the 1·5°C target (relative to 2°C) resulting in a significant net benefit for both countries.

While Chinese policymakers have long grasped the scale of the challenge, India’s policymakers and officials continue to appear in denial about the severity of the crisis, and the scope and intensity of the measures needed to deal with it.

So to what extent has China’s approach been successful, and what lessons can India (and other countries in South Asia and elsewhere struggling with deadly air pollution crises learn from China’s example?

Beijing and the long march towards blue(r) skies

The onset of winter in India once again brought the (now familiar) scenes of near-apocalyptic air pollution. Massive automobilisation, a coal-dependent electricity system, industrial pollution, crop burning and open burning of waste, badly planned and regulated construction activity, and the use of biomass for heating and cooking have combined with an almost total abdication of responsibility by government (whether state or central) to produce an air pollution crisis unprecedented in scale, severity and duration. By one measure, India now accounts for nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world, with toxic air now blanketing much of the country throughout the year.

As India’s cities have choked, activists and media commentators have contrasted their own government’s apathy and policy paralysis with the example of China, where in the face of disastrous levels of air pollution central and regional governments have introduced a series of dramatic policy measure. The result of these measures was a marked reduction of air pollution levels, with levels of the particulate PM 2.5 decreasing by around 30 percent in five years, and Beijing and surrounding areas experiencing noticeably cleaner air by the end of 2017.

Those gains have, however, proved fragile, with air pollution levels in Beijing and across much of China rising again, and the number of heavily polluted days increasing in comparison with the previous year. Face masks are once again ubiquitous on Beijing’s streets, with many residents posting images on social media with the tagline “gone are the buildings”.

This deterioration has been driven by a number of factors, including pressure to ease restrictions on economic activity in the face of a slowing economy, and an acknowledgment by the authorities of the widespread suffering caused, particularly to the poor, by restrictions on the use of coal for heating without the availability of adequate (and affordable) natural gas supplies.

Taking Chinese lessons: systemic problems require systemic solutions

China’s experience demonstrates both the necessity and the potential limitations of emergency measures to control air pollution, with important lessons for policy design across the world. It shows the scale and ambition of the steps required, but also the difficulty of sustaining progress without a more fundamental structural transformation of the economy (and the incentives within it).

It also highlights the need to ensure that air pollution mitigation policies do not unfairly penalise those who already disproportionately suffer the costs of dirty air, and the huge (and often hidden) costs associated with locking-in unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

China’s ability to recalibrate its policies to build on its recent progress, and the willingness of India and other developing countries – and their development partners – to learn from China’s example and implement those lessons with the urgency and political commitment required, will be among the key determinants of development progress in the 21st century.

This blog was originally published by Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development.


  1. With recent studies suggesting the true figure may be even higher – see here and here, for example.
  2. More information here.
  3. See here, for example.
  4. Including the largest shutdown of steel factories in history and the mass conversion of household heating from coal to gas.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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