Some cities and towns around the world are forced to cancel school for snowy days, some during extreme weather and occasionally for heatwaves. In India, the air has become so dirty that “smog days” are fast becoming a reality. This time last year, local air pollution levels were so high in New Delhi that local authorities shut down all of the city’s schools, recommending that five million children avoid going outdoors at all costs for fear of the toxic impacts of air pollution.

In many ways, New Delhi’s plight is an important warning of a worsening global trend. Across the world, poor air quality has become one of the leading causes of premature fatalities, resulting in around seven million premature deaths every year, often from stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. Indeed, this global epidemic has become so dire that the World Health Organisation convened the first-ever global conference on air pollution and health on October 30 this year.

WHO’s first global conference on air pollution and health highlights the dire state of the world’s air quality, its impact on people’s health and the urgent need for action. Photo Credit: Aarti Khosla
WHO’s first global conference on air pollution and health highlights the dire state of the world’s air quality, its impact on people’s health and the urgent need for action. Photo Credit: Aarti Khosla

Though this is not solely an Indian phenomenon – out of every 10 people living and breathing today, nine are inhaling polluted air – Indian city dwellers are suffering through some of the world’s worst conditions. A staggering 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, in terms of fine particulate air pollution, are in the country, including New Delhi, Varanasi and Patna. The air has become so bad in New Delhi that during its dirtiest months before winter, breathing the air can be worse for your health than tobacco smoke.

Authorities commonly measure fine particulate matter (known as PM 2.5) as a proxy for air quality. This refers to small particles capable of damaging blood vessels in the heart, brain and lungs. Levels higher than a 24 hour-average of 25 µg/m³ (as mandated by WHO) are dangerous. Indian cities routinely post levels well in excess of this threshold, with levels literally reading “off the charts”.

And so city dwellers in India have become all too used to the scenario that New Delhi banker Naresh Yadav described to Sky News last year: “The moment I stepped out of my home I started coughing and there was a burning sensation in my eyes.”

Many deaths due to air pollution

It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s deadly. A recent report published in the Lancet medical journal estimates that air pollution has caused up to 1.8 million premature deaths in India in 2015 alone, more than in any other country.

Outside of urban centres, rural Indians are also feeling the burden of air pollution – from sources inside their homes. Indoor air pollution is most commonly caused by the use of traditional cookstoves that burn wood or biomass and it’s a large-scale killer. Poor indoor air quality results in some 1.3 million deaths in India each year, making it the country’s second deadliest risk factor.

The air pollution map of Asia and the Pacific. Source: World Health Organisation
The air pollution map of Asia and the Pacific. Source: World Health Organisation

So what is India to do? It turns out, the country’s public health targets can be immediately served by enforcing stronger climate actions, which India has promised under the Paris Agreement – and which are more urgent now than ever, according to the recently published IPCC 1.5C report.

Indeed, ambitious efforts to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change – to transform our energy and transportation systems to run on cleaner, renewable sources – will create immediate benefits to local air quality.

Need to replace thermal power with renewables

Much of the outdoor air pollution that chokes Indian cities, for instance, is caused by thermal coal plants, which burn the particularly polluting fossil fuel to power India’s economic growth. However, there are early signs that the power sector is cleaning up its act. Last month, the country’s highest court ordered 57 coal burning thermal power plants throughout India to reduce their dangerous emissions over the coming years. This is the first of many positive steps the country needs to take.

The next must be replacing these polluting plants with solar and wind power that, when combined with battery storage, can meet India’s power generation needs without the deleterious impacts on human health.

Similarly, the transportation sector is ripe for transformation. While the vast majority of vehicles – personal cars, deliveries trucks, motorbikes – run on diesel or other highly polluting petro-derivatives. Indian leaders have made the recent, welcome and ambitious announcement that by 2030, all newly sold vehicles would be 100% electric. A road map to achieve this is urgently needed, as electrification of transportation is a sure-fire way of cleaning up urban air.

WHO conference to bring attention to air pollution

As health officials gathered a few days ago to discuss air pollution, they were wise to link their talks to broader climate plans and negotiations under the UN’s Paris Agreement. Climate and health are too rarely discussed together, despite the fact that climate change is exacerbating many of our greatest public health challenges and that both problems share many common solutions.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, speaking at the Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 30. Photo from WHO
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, speaking at the Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 30. Photo from WHO

Whereas so many of the worst impacts of climate change as seen as future threats, air pollution is causing a public health crisis today. Nowhere on the planet is the air pollution epidemic worse than in India. It’s time for leaders to recognise that the path to saving Indian lives today is the same that will put the nation on a path to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and in doing so could help it stave off the worst effects of climate change.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.