Is New Delhi’s Air Twice as Bad as Beijing’s?

Published on Author Asher
Data source: Delhi Pollution Control Committee, US Embassy in Beijing
Data source: Delhi Pollution Control Committee, US Embassy in Beijing

I seem to recall Professor Smitka mentioning in class sometime last week that, despite all the outcry over Beijing’s smog problems, New Delhi’s are actually far worse. Well Professor, the New York Times has vindicated you: over the weekend, the Times published a story claiming that “lately, a very bad day in Beijing is an average one in New Delhi.” In fact, on the night of January 15th, when the density of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 µm in diameter, especially harmful to the lungs) in Beijing rose above 500 µg/m3 for the first time, the US Embassy located there sent out dire warnings. Yet by that point, New Delhi had already experienced eight such days–with no word from the US Embassy in that city (for context, the WHO recommends daily mean exposure limit of 25 µg/m3).

Moreover, during the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak concentration of this fine particulate matter was calculated at 473 µg/m3, more than twice Beijing’s average of 227 µg/m3. I can attest to New Delhi’s health hazards personally: after spending just two weeks in the city in early 2010, I developed severe bronchitis requiring medical treatment–something I had never suffered from before, and have not suffered from since. The Times‘ report was followed by a flurry of others, including from Slate, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Economist–which noted that India’s average lung capacity is far worse than than China’s.

So why do India’s air-quality problems receive far, far less attention than China’s, both domestically and from abroad? It is the general consensus among economists that an economy’s pollution levels follow a Kuznets curve–first increasing, and then decreasing as the economy develops. So it has been for the US (as Los Angeles can attest). As of 2012, China’s income-per-capita (adjusted for PPP) was 3.75 times that of India, so perhaps as Indians begin earning better livings, they will become more vocal about their air quality. But I will avoid claiming that it is really quite that simple (many other issues may be at play here–geopolitics, media bias, etc.).

6 Responses to Is New Delhi’s Air Twice as Bad as Beijing’s?

  1. The same trend can be observed in the United States during the industrial revolution during the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps in a basic way, both China and India are experiencing this trend as well. The economic boom associated with industrial development and urbanization takes the forefront in public opinion as seemingly minor negative externalities fester. However, the health hazards and environmental damage caused by this industrialization become too major to ignore. This modernization comes primarily in two forms. First, pollution is driven down by technological progress that reduces the carbon footprint. The second factor in this is the collective rise to political action by the affected third parties of pollution who pressure their local and national governments to curb pollution. This however, assumes the efficacy of local and national governments in responding to the demands of its citizenry.

    • Was 19th and 20th century development worse in pollution? It might be worth reading some environmental history to find out. (Ask Prof. Kahn in Environmental Science!) My sense is that economies are far more energy intensive today, but were far more coal-intensive in the past. The former suggests recent times might be worse, the latter that the past was worse. The may be no direct measurements of PM2.5 but there would be public health data on respiratory disease.

  2. Two important things to note: 1. From China’s perspective, it’s hard to take the US and other developed nations seriously when they urge China to curb pollution during industrialization when the other countries did the same thing. 2. The pollution and destruction of fertile land caused by urban expansion will play an important role in the Chinese Economy. As more farmers are pushed back into more arid regions, it will become increasingly difficult for China to feed its population. Eventually, should China become net importers of grains, the world prices will sky rocket and the cost of simply sustainable living will rise with it.

    • Isn’t China already a net importer? – someone please do a blog post on soybeans and corn! And isn’t it a good thing if farmers give up trying to get crops to grow on marginal land and instead move to the city, both for the farmers, for the economy and for the environment?

  3. The most basic law of economics and human nature is that people and, in this case, nations will do what they believe is in their own best interest, at least financially. I don’t believe that China will let pollution reach levels where they can’t feed their own country. Although it does seem they are trending in that direction, they will do what economically best for them and I believe they will find a way to feed their nation. If that means they import their grains, then it will only be because the opportunity cost of this was lower than the alternative.

  4. I just read a (print) BusinessWeek article. One difference is that a far higher share of vehicles in India are diesel, which is both noxious and emitted at ground level. In China virtually no cars use diesel, only trucks.