The world can ignore the impact of the worsening air pollution at its own peril. The World Health Organization’s latest warning that the pollution levels are more dangerous than previously thought must prompt urgent global action. What was once considered a safe level is no longer safe now, given the growing toxicity of the pollutants. The WHO has issued new guidelines, slashing the maximum safe levels of key pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles called PM2.5s. (particulate matter of 2.5 micrometre diameter) which are produced by burning fuels in power generation, domestic heating and vehicle engines. Almost 80% of deaths related to PM2.5 could be avoided if the current air pollution levels are reduced. The global health body’s warning comes ahead of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) summit on climate change scheduled to be held in November. An estimated seven million people die prematurely across the world each year from diseases linked to air pollution while India alone accounts for over a million deaths. The low- and middle-income countries like India suffer the most, because of their reliance on fossil fuels for economic development. Air pollution is linked to conditions like heart disease and strokes. In children, it can reduce lung growth and cause aggravated asthma. The recent report of the University of Chicago on Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) projected a grim scenario for India, saying the pollution has reached alarming proportions. Improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation efforts, while reducing emissions will, in turn, improve air quality.
Air pollution must be treated on a par with smoking and unhealthy eating and, accordingly, strategies must be formulated to fight the menace. As the pollutants are chiefly the outcome of auto-emissions, the entire auto-emission regulatory process needs to be revamped thoroughly. Reduction of vehicular emissions through continuous checks, strict enforcement of the law and periodical survey of emission control equipment are vital. The air quality monitoring process must be strengthened. The success of mitigating air pollution depends largely on the participation of people and awareness of environmental health hazards. Among the Indian cities, Delhi is the most polluted with the practice of stubble burning in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana adding to the woes of the national capital. Every year, when the rice crop is harvested in north India before Diwali and the crop residue is burnt in the fields, air pollution rises well above danger levels. The farmer burns the crop in the field as it is the cheapest way of clearing the field. One way to solve the problem is to convert the crop waste into pellets, which can be used in existing coal-fired thermal power plants as a substitute for coal.