It was just last year when a very alarming report came out highlighting a jaw-dropping statistic. Of the 23 lakh premature deaths in the world per year can be attributed to pollution, out of which air pollution alone kills around 12.4 lakh. That is roughly about half the total deaths, making air pollution the most pressing issue that needs to be immediately addressed. But perhaps this was a global statistic it was not highlighted in India much. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar even claimed in the parliament that no Indian study has proven that air pollution shortens lives and urged the house not to “create fear psychosis among people”.
Now, we have a study by Greenpeace Southeast Asia that shows that air pollution claimed approximately 54,000 lives in Delhi in 2020, according to an analysis of the cost to the economy due to air pollution. Six Indian cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Lucknow — feature in the analysis.
The damage is “equally worrying” in other Indian cities, said the report, released on Thursday. “An estimated 25,000 avoidable deaths in Mumbai in 2020 have been attributed to air pollution. Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad estimated an approximate 12,000, 11,000, and 11,000 avoidable deaths respectively due to polluted air,” it said as reported by NDTV.
According to the report, the cost estimator, an online tool that estimates the real-time health impact and economic cost from fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) air pollution in major world cities, was deployed in a collaboration between Greenpeace Southeast Asia, IQAir, and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). Using real-time ground-level PM 2.5 measurements collated in IQAir’s database, the algorithm applies scientific risk models in combination with population and public health data to estimate the health and economic costs of air pollution exposure. PM2.5 refers to fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Exposure to PM2.5 is considered the most important environmental risk factor for deaths globally, and was attributed to 4.2 million premature deaths in 2015, the study said.
To show the impact of air pollution-related deaths on the economy, the approach used by Greenpeace is called ‘willingness-to-pay — a lost life year or a year living with a disability is converted to money by the amount that people are willing to pay in order to avoid this negative outcome, a release from Greenpeace said.
Noting that the air pollutant levels in Delhi remained almost six times above the prescribed WHO limits of 10 g/m3 annual mean, the study said the estimated air pollution-related economic losses were USD 8.1 billion (Rs 58,895 crore), which amounts to 13 percent of Delhi’s annual GDP, while it is estimated to have cost $17.7 billion for the entire country, in economic terms.
“Despite a temporary reprieve in air quality owing to the lockdown, the latest figures from the report underscore the need to act immediately. The need of the hour is to rapidly scale up renewable energy, bring an end to fossil fuel emissions and boost sustainable and accessible transport systems,” said the report.
Avinash Chanchal, Climate Campaigner of Greenpeace India, said the government needs to focus on greener solutions urgently. Chanchal added that when we choose fossil fuel over clean energy, our health is put at stake and that polluted air increases the likelihood of deaths due to cancer and stroke, the spike in asthma attacks, and worsens the severity of Covid-19 symptoms. Frank Hammes, CEO, IQAir, said: “Breathing should not be deadly. The fact that poor air quality claimed so many lives alone should give us pause, especially in a year when many cities were seeing lower air pollution levels due to less economic activity. Governments, corporations and individuals must do more to eliminate the sources of air pollution and make our cities better places to live”, as reported by Times of India.
With air pollution not only posing a threat to human life but also the economy, it is the need of the hour that the growth demand is fueled by sustainable and cleaner sources of energy and cities should promote low cost, active, and carbon-neutral transport options that prioritize walking, cycling, and public transport. With the government focusing on pushing infrastructure for growth, attention should be paid to increased use of clean energy and clean transport will not only improve public health but will also strengthen the economy and public money.