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Pollution deaths: India leads the G20

KOLKATA, INDIA - 22 Oct 2016: Boys play soccer on the Maidan on October 22, 2016 in Kolkata (Calcutta), India
A group of boys play soccer in the smog on a maidan in Kolkata. 

India leads the G20 nations in the number of pollution deaths according to recent reports.

In 2017, the effects of pollution led to the deaths of 1.2 million people in India. The environment in which this occurs is patently conducive to such a high death toll due to poor air quality. India is home to seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities – the country’s metros likened to “gas chambers” where breathing the air is considered equivalent to smoking fifty cigarettes a day. 

As such, rates of diseases such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are on the rise, including among those who have never smoked – pollution directly implicated in this trend. Aside from respiratory issues, pollution is also linked to damage to eye health, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and even mental health disorders and diabetes. 

Pollution is especially damaging to child health. “I am surprised whenever I am in Delhi and talk to people I know and find how many children have asthma and other respiratory problems,” Professor Aseem Prakash told Health Issues India in a recent interview. Indeed, globally, 93 percent of the world’s 1.8 billion children breathe toxic air which leads to the deaths of 700,000 children under five yearly. Indoors and outdoors, pollution is an ever-present risk to child health: both in the streets where air quality is bad and inside the home, given the fact that household pollution is responsible for between 22 and 53 percent of pollution levels overall.

That India leads the G20 nations in pollution-related mortality is unsurprising, but far from calls for complacency. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, to which India is a signatory and has pledged to “go beyond”, calls on countries to act to ensure that global temperatures remain far below 2.0℃ above pre-industrial levels and to attempt to limit warming levels to 1.5℃. Realising this necessitates a wholesale commitment by India, which “needs to reduce its emissions to below 4.5 Gigatonne of equivalent carbon dioxide (GtCO2e) by 2030 and to below 3.2 GtCO2e by 2050 to be within its fair-share range compatible with global 1.5°C IPCC scenarios” according to a recent report. 

India is investing in renewable energy but, at the same time, is continuing to construct 36,158 coal burning power plants. Existing and proposed energy infrastructure in the country is expected to emit 57 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide if operated as at present – and with the effects of pollution costing Indians their health and their lives, a rethink of energy infrastructure as part of its commitment to tackle climate change is the need of the hour.

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