In the News
November 6, 2021
November 6, 2021
Addressing world leaders at the cop26 jamboree in Glasgow this week, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, listed five commitments to tackle climate change, including a promise to achieve carbon neutrality by 2070 and several shorter-term goals. Mr Modi also took the opportunity to point out that while poor countries bear a mere fraction of the blame for creating the world’s climate mess, some, such as India, have done better at keeping environmental commitments than many rich countries.
He is right. With 18% of the world’s people, India is reckoned to have caused just 3% of accumulated CO2 emissions. Yet even as Indian leaders repeatedly—and sometimes justifiably—take the moral high ground on climate change’s long-term challenges, their people continue to suffer and die from its immediate, home-grown causes.
Dr Arvind Kumar should know. When he started working as a chest surgeon in Delhi 30 years ago, nine-tenths of lung cancer patients were smokers and nearly all were men over 50. Now half of them do not smoke, 40% are women and their mean age is a decade younger. He regularly sees children with blackened lungs. “The urgent issue we need to face is not CO2,” says Dr Kumar. “It is about our own health and the health of the next generation.”
The trouble is not just in Delhi. In winter the Himalayas trap the combined exhaust of the 600m people who populate the sprawling Indo-Gangetic Plain. From diesel pumps for irrigation to cremation pyres and from coal-fired power plants to gas-guzzling suvs, the smoke combines in a toxic stew that can hang for weeks in the season’s typically windless conditions. Big provincial cities such as Lucknow and Patna are just as sooty as Delhi. So are many rural areas.
Across this whole region, reckon researchers from the University of Chicago in a recent study, air pollution is likely to reduce life expectancy by an average of more than nine years. Research published late last year in the Lancet, a medical journal, estimates that in 2019 alone some 1.67m Indians died from the effects of pollution, accounting for one in six of the country’s deaths. The authors put the cost to India of lost productivity at some $36.8bn, in addition to $11.9bn spent on treating illnesses caused by pollution, equal to a total of 1.8% of gdp. They emphasise that these are conservative estimates.
Evidence continues to accumulate of wider-ranging effects. Clinical tests of 928 teenagers in Delhi found that 29.4% had asthma, three times typical levels worldwide. Unexpectedly, 40% were found to be overweight, a number so striking that the researchers think it may be caused by metabolic responses to pollution rather than overeating. Another study found a link between the height of Indian toddlers and pollution levels. Airborne toxins have also been linked to congenital defects.