Cleaning up the region’s toxic air would increase life expectancy by 5.6 years in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, according to the latest report by researchers at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
The data from EPIC’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) shows that if air pollution is reduced to meet the World Health Organization’s guideline then the average person would gain an additional 2.2 years. This benefit would be highest in the world’s most polluted region—the Indian subcontinent—where people could live over five years longer.
The report showed that the same policies that would help reduce fossil fuel emissions and help in climate change mitigation, would also deliver substantial health gains. While the Covid-19 linked lockdowns led to cleaner air in some cities for a brief period, wildfires in Europe exacerbated by a drier and hotter climate sent smoke thousands of miles away in cities with otherwise clear skies.
“During a truly unprecedented year where some people accustomed to breathing dirty air experienced clean air, and others accustomed to clean air saw their air dirty, it became acutely apparent the important role policy has played and could play in reducing fossil fuels that contribute both to local air pollution and climate change,” said Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman, Distinguished Service professor in Economics, who created AQLI along with colleagues at EPIC. “The AQLI demonstrates the benefits these policies could bring to improve our health and lengthen our lives.”
The mitigation policies will have to be local as emerging research has found that the pollution sources are local. While polluted air does move across the state and country boundaries, many of the world’s most polluted cities are generating their own pollution.
South Asia most polluted region
According to AQLI’s new report, South Asia is home to the most polluted countries on Earth, with Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan accounting for nearly a quarter of the global population and consistently ranking among the top five most polluted countries in the world. The estimated impacts are even greater across Northern India, the region that experiences the most extreme levels of air pollution in the world. The residents of this region, which includes the megacities of Delhi and Kolkata, are on track to lose more than nine years of life expectancy if 2019 air pollution levels persist.
“The bad news is that the greatest impacts of air pollution remain concentrated in South Asia. The good news is that governments in this region are recognizing the severity of the problem and are now beginning to respond,” said Ken Lee, the director of the AQLI. “The Government of India’s National Clean Air Programme is an important step towards cleaner air and longer lives, as is the establishment of the new Commission for Air Quality Management in the NCR.”
China is an important model that demonstrates how policy can produce sharp reductions in pollution in short order. Since the country began making efforts to reduce its pollution levels in 2013, it has reduced its particulate pollution by 29%—making up three-quarters of the reductions in air pollution across the world.