Air Quality Around the World

In the last couple of posts, we have mentioned that 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India. The rest are in Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Bangladesh. But the top 20 rankings made us wonder, how does India compare to the rest of the world? To find out, we selected a few cities from around the globe and mapped the World Health Organization’s 2014 air quality data. Due to variations in the frequency of data collection, WHO’s database contains data collected anywhere from 2010-2013, varying by city and country. The map below shows the outdoor air quality as measured by PM 2.5, or particulate matters that are two and a half microns or less in width. PM 2.5 are approximately 30 times smaller than human hair. Due to their size, they can lodge deeply into lungs and lead to health problems.

Air quality is drastically different across continents, but even cities with seemingly clean air see high-pollution days. Recently, the city of Stuttgart, Germany issued an air pollution warning and asked residents to leave cars at home in lieu of public transport to bring down pollution levels. Though Stuttgart averages healthy levels of air pollution on an annual basis, the city saw 64 days of pollution above EU’s recommended 40 µg/m³ for PM 10 in 2014. Stuttgart government issued the air pollution warning after pollution levels rose to 89 µg/m³ (PM 10) on January 19, 2016.

Similar to Stuttgart, other cities in Europe have taken measures to bring down air pollution. Even though these pollution levels are significantly better off than India’s, they are still above WHO and EU’s recommended levels. In 2014, Paris—like New Delhi—implemented an odd-even scheme to bring down pollution levels. Milan took more drastic measures in 2015 by banning all cars, motorcycles, and scooters between 10 am and 4 pm for a three-day period to bring down pollution levels. Contrastingly, London has introduced a congestion charge for those seeking to drive in the city during the day on weekdays. Beijing has also taken various measures, including putting limits on cars, factories, and construction sites on days with high levels of smog.

As Delhi government continues its debate on how to move forward with the odd-even policy, scholars from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago the Evidence for Policy Design group at Harvard University examined preliminary data to understand the pilot period’s impact. They found that the odd-even pilot reduced hourly particulate air pollution concentration by 10-13%, but doubted the scheme could work long-term. In Mexico City, a similar scheme led to worse pollution outcomes when households purchased second cars  or old, polluting cars to overcome the odd-even rule. The scholars called for a pilot on congestion charges akin to London’s to understand how this could lead to long-term reductions in air pollution.

As Delhi’s debates on how best to curb air pollution continue, however, many of the other cities that see dangerously high levels of pollution in India necessitate a louder public debate. Here is a chart showing the top 20 polluted cities around the world as compiled by the World Economic Forum. If you live in one of these cities, start the conversation!