Delhi drops out of the dubious list of 10 most polluted cities of the world

New Delhi, May 12, 2016: The new Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database (update 2016) of the World Health Organization (WHO) released today shows Delhi has arrested and improved air quality since the last global database published by the WHO in 2014. The annual average PM2.5 levels in Delhi have reduced by 20 per cent since 2013. The WHO has released data on levels of particulate matter in 3,000 urban areas in 103 countries highlighting that air pollution is responsible for more than three million premature deaths worldwide every year.
In the meantime the pollution levels in several other Indian cities have worsened. Patna, Allahabad, Gwalior and Kanpur have become more polluted. Says Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director for research and advocacy and the head of its air pollution control unit: “This indicates air pollution is now a national crisis and needs strict and aggressive nation-wide action across all cities of India.”
Globally, more cities have become polluted and are violating the WHO guidelines. The WHO must also release gaseous pollution data to show how the pollution challenge is shifting across the regions: those that have reduced their particulate pollution level, are now battling nitrogen oxide and ozone pollution.
The key highlights of CSE analysis of the WHO database
Air pollution in Delhi is showing improvement – responding to action. The new WHO database reports 20 per cent drop in PM2.5 level since 2014. However, the annual levels are still double the ambient air quality standards and that demands more stringent action to protect public health. The beginning of the second phase of action in Delhi has stabilised the air pollution trends in Delhi. A much larger number of vehicles is meeting the Bharat Stage IV standards that were introduced for new vehicles in 2010. The Supreme Court directives have imposed environment compensation charge on entry of each truck into Delhi and restricted entry of pre-2006 trucks. This has halved the number of trucks that contribute about 30 per cent of the transport sector pollution. The Rajghat coal-based power plant was shut down last year. The remaining coal power plant in Badarpur is operating at 30 per cent of its capacity. There is also a greater push for enforcement on waste burning and construction dust. All of these have prevented pollution from getting worse.
However, this should not breed complacency as the annual average levels are still double the standards and a lot more will have to be done to meet the clean air targets in Delhi.
Lesser number of Indian cities in top 10 and to 20 most polluted cities of the world: Top 10 most polluted cities in 2016: 4 (Patna, Gwalior, Raipur, Allahabad)
Top 10 most polluted cities in 2014: 6 (Delhi, Patna, Gwalior, Raipur, Ahmedabad, Lucknow)
Top 20 most polluted cities in 2016: 10 Indian cities
Top 20 most polluted cities in 2014: 13 Indian cities
Agra, Amritsar and Ahmedabad are no longer in the top 20 list.
Bad news is that pollution levels are worse in several other Indian cities: It is disturbing that several Indian cities – in fact smaller cities — have shown substantial increase in pollution levels since 2014. PM2.5 in Allahabad has increased by 92 per cent; in Ludhiana 34 per cent; in Khanna 30 per cent; Kanpur 24 per cent;  Agra 20 per cent; Lucknow 18 per cent, and Amritsar 17 per cent among others. This indicates that air pollution is a national crisis now. According to the Global Burden of Disease, air pollution is the fifth largest killer in the country.
Globally more cities are showing up as not meeting the WHO guidelines for PM2.5: More than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas globally are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO limits. The WHO annual standards for PM2.5 are 10 micrograms per cubic metre. The numbers of cities that are not meeting the standards globally have increased over time – 1,122 cities in 2014 and 2,051 cities now are not meeting the WHO guidelines.
More cities in advanced countries are violating the WHO standards: Even cities in advanced countries that have significantly lowered PM2.5 levels compared to the levels in India, are still violating the WHO guidelines. In 2014, about 610 cities were violating the WHO standards for PM2.5. This has now increased to 1,313 – more than double. In Austria, France, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Poland more than 70 per cent of the cities are violating the WHO standards. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland more than 90 per cent of the cities are violating the WHO guidelines for annual PM2.5 concentration.
The WHO must release data on gaseous pollution as well to indicate how pollution challenge is changing and shifting in different regions of the world: Advanced countries that have shown progress in reducing air pollution are also facing newer challenges. Mix of pollutants and nature of health risks are changing setting new goals for mitigation. For instance, over the last two years, several European cities have reported violation of nitrogen oxide standards. United Kingdom was dragged to the European Court of Justice for not meeting the NOx standards. While particulate matter has very strong health impacts, the gases are the next generation challenge that the other regions are dealing with. The WHO should capture the shifting nature of pollution challenge in different regions to help inform policies.
The WHO should also release similar database for the gaseous pollution for all cities across the world. This is needed to show how pollution challenge is shifting across regions. For instance, while most of the cities in OECD have significantly lowered particulate pollution they are in grip of serious nitrogen oxide and ozone pollution. Capturing the multi-pollutant crisis is critical to inform air pollution control policies across the world.
The next steps
Delhi has demonstrated that if cities take action to control pollution it will show results. Strong public awareness, judicial and executive action has started to catalyse second phase of action in Delhi. This will have to be taken forward to meet clean air targets to protect public health. Delhi still has a long way to go.
India urgently needs national air quality planning to ensure that all citis.

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