Since 1980, China’s air pollution has been severe, fuelled by the country’s rapid economic growth and industrialisation. But since at least 1990, India’s air pollution levels have surpassed China’s: thick smog and haze disrupt life across North India every winter.

In 2019, China had the highest number of preventable fatalities from pollution, at 1.42 million deaths. That year, India was close behind, with almost one million deaths. Together, the two countries accounted for 58% of global deaths in 2019 related to PM2.5 pollution or particulate matter or fine particle pollution.

Both countries have enacted air pollution legislations. But China has achieved better air quality results than India. Many have asked how India can replicate China’s experience in reducing air pollution levels. How could this be achieved?

What research shows

Some answers are available in a research paper titled “Air pollution governance in China and India: Comparison and implications” published in April in Environmental Science and Policy.

China’s strategy for regulating air pollution focuses heavily on hierarchical policy-making and implementation. By developing five-year plans and other programmes, China’s central government plays a significant role in mitigating pollution. The provinces get mandatory objectives laid out in these plans, break them up and then distribute them to lower-level governments.

These objectives are carried out by a “targets and responsibility” system, where higher-level governments evaluate progress and have the authority to reward or penalise lower-level authorities.

As one of its major priorities, the Chinese government’s State Council released the “Air Pollution Prevention Action Plan” in 2013, setting specific PM2.5 concentration targets to be attained by 2017.

Local governments were mandated to impose strong measures against obsolete facilities and adopt pollution control technologies in current sources, supported by considerable financial subsidies.

China’s air quality

China’s measures have led to improvements in the country’s air quality, according to the study, which was based on expert interviews, research on causal inference, data from satellite and ground monitoring, and emissions inventories.

Between 2013 and 2018, the yearly mean PM2.5 concentration in provincial capital cities decreased from 74 g/m3 to 39 g/m3, while the PM2.5 concentration in Beijing decreased from 90 g/m3 to 51 g/m3.

China has already recovered from some of its worst bouts of air pollution through a combination of steady economic growth and proactive emissions reduction programmess. The country’s air quality is projected to continue improving.

China’s emissions reached their peak for sulfur dioxide in 2007 and for nitrogen oxides and PM2.5 in 2012, followed by a significant decline. The air quality in China has greatly improved since 2013, when stringent air pollution control laws were implemented. PM2.5 levels decreased by nearly 50% by 2019 in significant areas, such as Beijing.

In Beijing's central business district after a red alert was issued for heavy air pollution, in this photograph from December 2016. Credit: Reuters.

Making comparison difficult

While India and China should not be directly compared, in view of their being at different stages of development, India should consider adopting some measures from China’s approach.

The difference in air pollution sources between India and China makes it challenging to directly compare their mitigation measures. In China, Industrial point sources contribute significantly to pollution. But India’s emissions are dominated by household, agricultural, and dust pollution. Mitigating these would require substantial investments. India needs to explore innovative strategies to address pollution from dispersed and unpredictable sources.

India grapples with persistently high air pollution levels, particularly in areas like the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Projections indicate further increases due to factors such as fossil fuel consumption, crop burning and industrial and transportation expansion.

The country’s air pollution control governance structure follows a decentralised approach with limited legal consequences for non-compliance. The National Clean Air Programme was launched in 2019 to reduce PM2.5 concentrations, but city-level plans lack enforceable obligations and comprehensive governance arrangements. This poses challenges to effective implementation and addressing governance gaps.

As China transitions to a post-industrial economy, it has the ability to shut down polluting industries due to its high per-capita gross domestic product and surplus capacity. By contrast, India faces challenges in enforcing the closures of non-compliant power plants due to limited financial investments to open alternative, clean operations.

Addressing air pollution in developing countries like India requires balancing energy accessibility, livelihoods and environmental concerns. Comparing China and India highlights the need for political will and accountability mechanisms, with India’s challenge primarily rooted in limited economic capacity. Advancing air quality in India will require significant investments and environmental stricter policies, potentially involving trade-offs with economic development.

Notable progress

Compared to the last decade, India has despite the existing and upcoming obstacles made notable progress in addressing air pollution challenges. Significant reductions in emissions have been achieved in certain sources through initiatives such as the Ujjwala Yojana that provides cooking gas cylinders to replace more polluting sources of fuel, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) to to improve waste collection efficiency, thereby reducing emissions from waste burning, and the Vehicle Scrapping Policy to phase out vehicles older than 15 years, contributing to higher emissions.

While some researchers have pointed out the limitations of these policies, it is unfair to dismiss their positive effects. The impacts may not be immediately visible in terms of air pollution concentrations, given the diverse and rapidly growing sources of emissions. However, emissions inventories can effectively demonstrate the positive impacts of these policies.

In India, addressing air quality improvement within financial constraints can be supported by utilising an emissions inventory tool, inspired by China’s accountability model. India’s framework would focus on developing an inventory of source activities and emissions on a dynamic scale, leveraging the data for progress insights. This approach could provide a foundation for future air pollution mitigation strategies while working towards establishing monitoring networks and supportive infrastructure.

India should avoid blindly replicating Western frameworks and instead strategically allocate limited funds for air pollution control. Ineffective measures, such as smog towers and air purifiers should be discouraged. Monitoring efforts should be optimised and India should ensure that funding is used appropriately for targeted mitigation actions rather than solely for research purposes.

In India, institutions receiving funds should prioritise actionable solutions over academic publications. To address the issue of uneven funding distribution, dedicated institutes supporting air quality action research should be established nationwide. Funding should be allocated strategically, focusing on solution-oriented research.

Improved communication and collaboration among policy implementers, research organisations, and non-profits are essential. A centralised registration system can facilitate knowledge sharing and identify gaps in air pollution mitigation efforts. By adopting a holistic approach and interdisciplinary thinking, India can make significant progress in mitigating air pollution despite its limited resources.

Ajay Nagpure works as a senior scientist at the Department of Civil Engineering, Princeton University.