For a national capital as leafy, low-built and spread out as New Delhi is, the startling pollution levels reported in the city might come as a surprise. Particulate matter as measured by the PM2.5 index is up to 70 times the safe limit set by the World Health Organisation. Recently, the air quality index topped 999 micrograms per cubic m, beyond what the city's instruments can measure. The cool season months from November to February are the cruellest: A powdery haze cloaks the city and visibility drops to a few hundred metres. The damage done to the human lung, especially of the very young, is incalculable. Those who can, like senior diplomats, seek to escape the city. Surely, this is no way to live.
Severely polluted cities are not an Indian monopoly. Beijing's pollution woes match, and sometimes exceed, New Delhi's. Earlier this year, dozens of flights to Beijing were cancelled after a sandstorm raised the level of particulate matter in the city. The cities of Baoding and Xingtai have even worse pollution, just as three other Indian cities have pollution levels that often exceed New Delhi's. The WHO estimates that 92 per cent of the world's population live in places where its air quality guidelines are not met. Several million people a year die premature deaths on account of this. Another three billion people are at serious risk from indoor smoke because of coal and biomass fuels used for cooking and heating.
The solutions stare people in the face. Reduced dependence on private transport, stricter emissions standards on vehicles, curbing diesel engines, switching from carbon-based fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, turning down the heating in winter a few notches, and conversely, cooling in summer. Every little bit helps. Beyond lie more complex issues: lifestyle changes, water conservation and alternative development models that reduce the fixation on gross domestic product growth at any cost. The exciting news in the 21st century is that advances in a variety of fields, from solar energy to the hydrogen fuel cell and battery technology, hold out reasonable prospects of a clean energy future.
To make best use of this for mankind's benefit, a few factors are important. First is political will. The typical government response, especially in developing countries, is to stall - arguing that development programmes cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate change years into the future. This is extreme short-sightedness. A second key is that companies at the forefront of the new technologies must make them available at reasonable prices. There are strong arguments in favour of protecting intellectual property, and allowing fair gains for the fruits of research. But this shouldn't be taken too far. It is more than just the rights of a company or a nascent industry. Increasingly, it is about the planet's very survival.