How to save lives—and money – by addressing India’s air pollution

By Erich Striessnig, Research Assistant, IIASA World Population Program
We have all heard about the terrible air pollution in India’s cities. Average concentrations of particulate pollution exceed World Health Organization guidelines through most of India, most of the time. So why hasn’t anything been done? Is it really too expensive?

In a recent publication with fellow IIASA Population Program researcher Warren Sanderson and IIASA Mitigation of Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases Program researchers Wolfgang Schöpp and Markus Amann, we set to find out. In the study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, we showed that in fact, policy reforms in India targeted at reducing emissions of dangerous fine particulate matter could save thousands of lives, and at the same time save money.

Mark Danielson

Air pollution in India exceeds World Health Organization limits much of the time, which contributes to health problems and premature deaths. Photo Credit: Mark Danielson via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Due to their very small size, small particles released by cars, factories, and other combustion can travel very deep down into people’s lungs and cause or worsen all sorts of health issues. In Indian cities, where concentrations of these pollutants are already quite high, the expected increase in economic output over the next two decades will be accompanied by an enormous increase in air pollution, leading to a higher number of sick days or even deaths.

Both of these effects could be prevented or at least reduced if stricter regulations on emission limits – already in place in other countries – were imposed. The new study shows that if India enacted pollution controls as stringent as according to European legislation, by the year 2030, the end of the study period, up to 2.5 million premature deaths would be prevented.

So how do pollution controls save money? Healthier people are more productive because they are sick less often. People who can expect to live longer in a cleaner environment are more likely to make investments which would again create jobs and boost the economy. Our study shows that by 2030 such investments would in fact more than pay for themselves, when the economic benefits of a healthier population are considered.

So why haven’t politicians started doing something already much earlier? One answer might be that such reforms initially only produce costs, whereas the benefits typically don’t crystallize before the next elections. Hopefully, this latest scientific evidence from a collaboration of IIASA population and air pollution researchers can offer these politicians an impetus to act. Read more on the IIASA Web site.

Reference Warren Sanderson, Erich Striessnig, Wolfgang Schoepp, and Markus Amann. 2013. Effects on Well-Being of Investing in Cleaner Air in India. Environmental Science and Technology. 47 (23), pp 13222–13229 DOI: 10.1021/es402867r

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.