Adults who grew up in less polluted days can cope with pollution. But when a child’s lungs are damaged, they are damaged for life
November 8, 2016 — On Sunday, the capital city of one of the world’s fastest growing economies was effectively shut down in an emergency act. The reason was not terrorism, but air pollution. The threat to citizens from smog in Delhi was judged so great that traffic was rationed, coal-fired power stations closed and diesel generators suspended. This was a brave and sane decision in the world’s largest democracy.
Right now Delhi is the world’s most polluted city. But air quality is at crisis levels in cities around the world. More than 300 million children live at the severest risk, Unicef declared last week, and 2 billion in areas where outdoor pollution exceeds health guidelines. Half of Delhi’s schoolchildren have permanently impaired lung capacity, thanks to the air they breathe.
India’s capital city is telling people to stay away or work from home, but offering no compensation to those who cannot, or whose livelihood suffers. This can only be a short-term solution; it hurts those who can least bear it. Although the prime minister Theresa May will have been sheltered from the worst of the choking smog during her trip to India, arriving in Delhi should have been a powerful warning about the effects of privileging growth over environmental concerns. Citizens of rich countries are sometimes too relaxed about such things when air pollution afflicts the richest cities as well as the poorest. That London has not yet been closed down in similar fashion to Delhi is only through lack of courage on the part of the government.
Air quality in London has hit levels worse than those in Delhi and Beijing. Earlier this year, annual air pollution limits were breached in just a week. Earlier this month, in what may be one of the last chances to bring EU law to bear on the issue, the high court ruled that the government had knowingly failed to draw up plans to bring it within legal limits and there must be immediate action, even if that means drastic measures to curtail traffic.
The causes of air pollution differ around the world, from coal-fired power plants to agricultural burning. One constant is traffic. Older cars and diesel engines produce particulates that clog up the lungs and may enter brain tissue, and nitrogen oxides that affect breathing. Car manufacturers were forced to admit last year that they had flouted tests on their diesel emissions. But the bigger question is why in a shortsighted attempt to reduce greenhouse gases by a tiny amount (diesel cars do more miles to the gallon) the risks were ignored, and customers persuaded that diesel cars were actually greener.
Now that the consequences for air quality are clear, it is time to rebalance taxation and regulation in favour of petrol, which is cleaner though producing more carbon, and urgently incentivise electric cars. In London Sadiq Khan, the new mayor, to his credit has taken a strong line on air pollution, in contrast to Boris Johnson’s tactics which amounted to unconvincing denial and attempts to silence scientists. Mr Khan should move faster still on banning the most polluting vehicles – he would find public support in inner London.
Air pollution shames us all. From Beijing to Los Angeles, Marseille to Manila, the air we breathe in cities has deteriorated so much that it is no longer safe for children. Adults who grew up breathing cleaner air are more resilient in the face of pollution. But when a child’s lungs are damaged, they are damaged for life. The next generation already carries the burden of our inaction. This is a problem we know how to solve. Cut down coal-fired power, cut out diesel in cities, encourage electric cars and public transport. India should follow the declaration of emergency with long-term action, not just this short-term fix. Richer cities, London foremost among them, should be ashamed that they, with all their resources, have failed their children for so long. The high court judges were right. The government can and must act now.