Beijing's action on air pollution outstrips that by Delhi, says CSE

  • New number crunching by the Centre for science and Environment expose that this winter if air quality classification and health alert system of Beijing or that of the US was applied the city would have been in frequent state of pollution emergency requiring contingency action.
  • CSE has also assessed what other governments are doing in nearly similar situation to save lives and reduce illness. Finds Beijing has moved forward to take harder decisions and still finding it difficult to meet clean air standards.

New Delhi, February 5, 2014: Both Delhi and Beijing had begun their fight against air pollution neck-to-neck, but Delhi has lost steam midway. Beijing has moved ahead because of its decisive action, finds a review by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) of the state of air quality reporting by monitoring agencies in the two cities.

Says Anumita Roychowdhury, head of CSE’s air pollution control team: “If we apply the air quality classification and health alert system of Beijing or the US to Delhi this winter, this city would be in a frequent state of pollution emergency requiring contingency action.”

The CSE review was done in the wake of serious public health concern over air pollution levels this winter in Delhi. The review also refutes the recently released report of IITM SAFAR, an official air quality monitoring agency in Delhi. The report says that though emissions have increased by 10-20 per cent over the last four years, there is no systematic increase or decrease in air pollution, though the frequency of extreme pollution events are rising. From its analysis, IITM SAFAR concludes that Delhi’s peak pollution levels are lower than those of Beijing.

Says Roychowdhury: “We should not miss the crucial point on the need for urgent air pollution control to protect public health. This is not the time for complacency when pollution levels are unacceptably high.”

IITM-SAFAR has not highlighted the health implications of the severe pollution levels and peaks that it itself has recorded in Delhi – three to five times the standards. Neither has it reviewed the data emerging from other monitoring agencies. The CSE analysis brings out that Delhi, which has already set up one of the most extensive air quality monitoring systems, has the opportunity to assess the risk better. Says Roychowdhury: “Instead of giving out partial information, this should be leveraged to assess risks better and help take decisions to protect public health more effectively.”

The CSE review and analysis highlights the following:

  • Delhi leads in reporting of real-time data to assess risks better – leverage it for public health protection: As part of the national ambient air quality programme, Delhi has the most extensive network of automatic monitors – 11 -- that churns out real-time data by the hour on official websites. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) runs five and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) runs six monitors. Following the intervention of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), data reporting format has been improved for easy access. The DPCC has fully implemented this and reports on all critical pollutants including PM2.5. The CPCB has also modified its reporting.

    However, the SAFAR monitors – which are not part of this grid -- release only calculated air quality index for all their stations on a daily basis, as also the aggregate 24-hour city averages for PM2.5, PM10 and ozone. They do not provide dynamic real time concentration by locations or back information.

    Though some of the DPCC and CPCB sites are plagued by frequent repairs and maintenance, they do release data by the hour. This helps assess daily risks better. It may be noted that Beijing has 35 PM2.5 monitors around the city broadcasting real-time data.
  • Official monitoring grid captures severe pollution trends: There can certainly be legitimate variations among monitoring stations depending on locations, monitoring methods, as well as local conditions. But Delhi must take the advantage of the extensive network and the larger data base that exists among all the three monitoring agencies to drive action.

    IITM-SAFAR has stated in its release in January 2014 that PM2.5 levels in Delhi “hardly touched 350 microgramme per cum…. majority days ranged between 100-300 microgramme per cum,,,,”. It concluded, based on data for five days for two cities for 14-17 January, that “PM2.5 level remained much lower in Delhi (150-270 microgramme per cum) as compared to Beijing where PM2.5 levels reached as high as 500-670 microgramme per cum”. But the data that IITM-SAFAR has reported is still unacceptably high.

    CSE has reviewed daily 24-hour average PM2.5 levels for this winter (October 1, 2013-January 31, 2014) for three monitoring stations for which continuous data is available without disruption – R K Puram, Mandir Marg and Punjabi Bagh.
  • Very high exceedance: On a majority of the days, PM2.5 levels in these stations have exceeded the standard by four to seven times; on two occasions (December 18 and January 5), they exceeded by 10 and eight times respectively.

    CSE has analysed the extent of daily level of exceedence and found that Delhi met the standard only on three days. But on 41 days (33% of days monitored in winter), daily levels were 500 per cent higher than the standard. In fact, on 17 days (14% of days monitored), the levels were higher than 350 microgramme per cum which is close to the highest reported by IITM-SAFAR for January.

If Delhi had the same smog alert system as Beijing and the US…
Other governments are monitoring air to inform people about health risks, and take emergency action to reduce severely high peak levels. CSE went a step further to understand the air quality data in Delhi in relation to public health and contingency action. It applied air quality classification criteria of Beijing and the US and their health alert systems to daily pollution levels this winter in Delhi. It found that Delhi would require a contingency plan very frequently.

  • If Beijing’s health alert system is applied to Delhi’s winter pollution: Out of the total number of days monitored during last four months, only one day would qualify as excellent; four days as good; 10 days as slightly polluted (8%); 10 days as moderately polluted (8%); 45 days heavily polluted (37%); 51 severely polluted (41%); and two days worse than severely polluted days (exceeding 500 microgramme per cubic metre).
  • If the US air quality health alert system is applied to Delhi’s winter pollution: Not a single day with good air quality; only one day moderate; two days unhealthy; 22 days unhealthy (18%); 45 very unhealthy (37%); 36 hazardous (29%); and 17 days hazardous or significant harm level.

What do governments do when high level alerts are issued?
CSE compared the nature of policy response to severe pollution episodes or very high pollution days in other cities. It found:

  • Beijing has come up with a pollution contingency plan that includes informing people about taking protection. On red alert days, kindergartens, primary and middle schools will close; about 80 per cent of government-owned cars have to be taken off the roads; private cars will be allowed on alternate days according to numbers plates; freight vehicles and those transporting material for construction sites will be barred; polluting factories will have to cut their emissions or shut down completely when the orange warning signal is issued; construction sites will have to halt excavation and demolition operations; and there will be a ban on barbeques and fireworks on heavily polluted days.
  • In the US cities Rule 701 of air pollution emergency contingency actions (for PM and ozone) states that during stage 2-3 level, schools, local and state law enforcement agencies should be alerted; public safety personnel should discontinue prolonged, vigorous outdoor exercises lasting longer than one hour; and those with heart or lung diseases need to be informed to avoid outdoor activities. Industrial units are asked to reduce combined emissions by at least 20 per cent of normal weekday operations. For vehicles, it asks to reduce fleet vehicle miles; promotes ridesharing and telecommuting. Liquid or solid fossil fuels cannot be burned in electric power generating systems unless a force majeure natural gas curtailment is in effect. It also recommends all non-emergency driving be discontinued.

Policy action to cut air pollution risks
CSE has also reviewed the action taken over time by the two cities and found a lot more is happening in Beijing compared to Delhi. Both the cities had started aggressively around the same time -- year 2000. Both had geared up to meet the air quality benchmark for the big games events – Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. Both the cities have not solved the problem yet. But Beijing has kept the momentum of action going. Delhi has lost the steam.

First generation action in two cities (1998-2008): Delhi-Beijing neck to neck

  • Delhi: Euro II emissions standards in 2000 (five years ahead of schedule) and Euro III in 2005; introduced unleaded petrol; mandated pre-mix petrol to two- and three-wheelers; implemented largest ever CNG programme for bus, three-wheeler fleet taxis; phased out 15 year old commercial vehicles; strengthened vehicle inspection programme (PUC); efforts made to bypass transit traffic; relocated polluting industry; Stricter action on power plants; two power plants on natural gas; Ban on open burning.
  • Beijing: Implementation of Euro IV emissions standards for Olympics; ban on registration of diesel car in 2003; advanced I/M programme for on-road vehciles- advanced tests on chassis dynamometer; restrictions on Euro III heavy duty vehicles; Euro I cars are labelled yellow and their movement in the city is restricted; 20,000 buses introduced by 2008 (including CNG buses); Metro and light railway introduced; restrictions based on odd and even number vehicles introduced; stringent control industry, power plants, construction industry; heating systems etc; stringent action taken to seal oil vapour leakage from petrol refueling stations.

Second generation action in two cities post 2008-2014: Beijing moves ahead
Post 2008 action in Delhi has taken a few more action but scale and stringency is missing. The new steps include extension of metro system, increasing bus numbers close to 6000; introduction of Euro IV standards in 2010; upgradation of PUC tests. Creation of Air Ambience Fund in 2009; implementation of 40 km of cycle tracks with new footpaths during the Commonwealth games and marginal increase in parking prices in NDMC area

Compared to Delhi’s action, Beijing has been more strident. It has gone to the extent of capping the number of cars that can be sold in a year – initially fixed the number of cars to be sold annually to 240,000. This year onwards this limit will be lowered to 150,000 new licenses annually. It has introduced Euro V emissions standards and 10 ppm sulphur fuel for buses and municipal fleet. They continue to ban diesel cars inside the city. Vehicle inspection has been further upgraded to using remote sensing technology. They have increased parking fee in Feb 2011; Increased total length of subway and light railway to 456 km; Increased subsidy for scrappage of old vehicles; Promoting CNG, electric vehicles and hybrids etc; Beijing has adopted air quality index and a health alert system to inform and warn people; Local governments in China are now liable to pay a fine if air pollution levels hit critical rank; Range of action on polluting industry and other sources

Delhiites cannot bear the cost of ill health anymore: Delhi cannot afford to remain silent about the daily air quality any more. Health stakes are too high. People already suffering from lung disease, respiratory and cardiac problems, children and elderly need to be warned about the air and the precaution they need to take. Many studies in Delhi including those from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute, St Stephens Hospital and others give the scarry evidence. As per the Global Burden of Disease report released last year, air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India. The WHO has classified air pollution including diesel emissions as a class 1 carcinogen.

Most extensive scary evidences have come from the 2012 epidemiological study on children in Delhi carried out by the CPCB and the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute of Kolkata. This study had covered 11,628 school-going children from 36 schools in different parts of Delhi and in different seasons. It found that every third child has reduced lung function. There is evidence to show greater exposure to particulate pollution. Sputum of Delhi’s children contains four times more iron-laden macrophages than those from cleaner environs, indicating pulmonary hemorrhage. The levels of these biomarkers in children have been found to be higher in areas with high PM10 levels. The World Allergy Organisation (WAO) Journal also published in 2013, reported high respiratory disorder symptoms in students residing in Chandni Chowk (66 per cent) in north Delhi, Mayapuri (59 per cent) in west Delhi and Sarojini Nagar (46 per cent) in south Delhi. Heavy traffic movement has been found to be the factor in the relative difference among the localities. WAO also alerts that allergic problems will increase further as air pollution increases.

Need urgent action
Delhi cannot afford to fall behind when its pollution levels are rising rapidly and reaching unbearable heights. Delhi and a large number of other Indian cities in grip of serious air pollution crisis need to gather momentum and implement hard measures to meet clean air standards.

  • Need time-bound action plan for each source of pollution, especially vehicles that emit toxic fumes in our breathing zone.
  • Integrate data from all monitoring stations to implement daily air quality and health alerts to help people take precaution.
  • Implement contingency plan to reduce peak levels.
  • Implement second generation action plan to meet clean air standards by the plan period: this must include: Time bound improvement in public transport integrated with walking and cycling Integrate transportation with land-use planning Road pricing to reduce dependence on personal vehicles Tax rationalisation and innovative funding mechanism Parking policy and charges to reduce dependence on personal vehicles Leapfrog quickly to Euro V/VI standards. The Auto fuel policy committee must give stringent emissions standards roadmap for vehicles to cut toxic risks.

For more details, you can get in touch with Anumita Roychowdhury on