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An Exploration of Air Quality in China and India Gregory Santoro and Martin Shapiro


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Introduction “Beijing - Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40% of the global total,”1   “Beijing office workers are wearing gas masks at their desks”2 and “The thick haze of outdoor air pollution common in India today is the nation’s fifthlargest killer.”3 These are all New York Times quotes about air quality in China and India, which helped to contextualize our research. In our research we compared air quality in China and India and its effect on daily life through visibility, air sensor readings, perceptions, and how each country addresses air pollution. Measures of Air Quality: Visibility was one metric we used to assess air quality. Although many of the portraits of air quality in Beijing demonstrated obscured short distance visibility, we did not find this the case for the Guangdong Province and Delhi. Thus, air pollution’s effect on visibility did not impair daily life


functions, such as driving, biking, or other similar activities. In the cities we visited, visibility was obscured at long distances, suggesting air pollution effects. Impaired long distance visibility was particularly evident in Delhi when taking pictures from India Gate and in Guangzhou, as the skyscraper skyline gradually disappeared into the haze. Sensor readings, our second method, demonstrated moderate to unhealthy air quality - according to the American Lung Association’s index of air quality4 - which are represented in the maps below. The sensor we used, the MQ-135 gas sensor, measures mainly NH3,NOx, alcohol, Benzene, smoke, CO2 in parts per million based on the resistance these particles impose on the circuit. We converted these values roughly to units of mg/m3 (PM2.5) by multiplying the ppm value by 1.145. It is important to note though that the sensor resistance is



2.74 Km


Edward, Wong, “Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China,”, April 1 2013, 2 Bill Bishop, “Smog, Fraud and Diplomacy,”, January 29 2013, 3 Amy Yee, “The Air That Kills in India,”, February 14 2013, 4 “State of the Air: American Lung Association,” 2013,



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affected by various factors: temperature, humidity, and loose wiring - all of which affected the precision of our data. Additionally, the duration of our readings in China and India averaged 6.0 and 6.5 minutes, respectively. In noting these faults, the data suggests “moderate to unhealthy” air quality in Guangdong and Delhi. China exhibited a rural-urban air quality divide: the maps clearly indicate worse air quality within cities (red) when compared to rural areas, such as in

Lianshan (blue). In India, we did not examine rural air quality, but rather more urban landscapes. Many of our readings in urban India were in rickshaws and near traffic congestion, the largest driver of air pollution. Overall, our localized data suggests that air quality is worse in Delhi than in the Guangdong Province. Due to the inherent intimate interaction of the public with traffic, perhaps individuals breathe higher concentrations of vehicular pollution compared to factory emissions.     Awareness: China: In addition to air quality measuring, we investigated another comparison point awareness. While in the field in China, most were aware of air quality issues and of PM 2.5, in both the public and private sphere. In speaking with Robyn Wang, a consultant at Ernst and Young in Shanghai and parttime government intern, she cited Weibo as a platform that citizens used to express concern about air quality, especially college students. Ms. Wang described hashtags similar to #itsucks and #statedepartment (for a various departments) that were used in the discussion of air quality. The spike in microblogs 3    

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on Weibo concerning PM 2.5 to describe air quality in the graph above confirms the accuracy of Ms. Wang’s statement. Air pollution also manifested itself into the private sector. We saw this through two mediums. First, at Mission Hills, a golf club and fully integrated resort near Shenzhen. While traveling through the resort, multiple signs were posted, marketing Mission Hills as an escape - free of the urban pollution. The sign read, “pure air quality,” and then had PM 2.5 in large font, affirming that air quality is a luxury. Second, PM 2.5 was marketed on air purifiers in a mall. The marketing has two implications. First it affirms public awareness of PM 2.5 and poor air quality and second, suggests that good air quality is a luxury item that the private sector is capitalizing on. The air purifier we saw ranged from 1,139 Redminbi (about $175) to 5,249 Redminbi (about $807). Both prices are high given the per capita income level of $4,940 as of 2011.5 India: Perceptions of air quality in India sharply contrasted that of China. Distinct from China, impressions of air quality in India differed based on level of education. Conversations with people walking around Connaught Place considered the air quality to be “great” and had little concern for air pollution. However, stepping into Starbucks provided a slight shift in perception with customers acknowledging poor air quality, but no concern for associated neither respiratory diseases nor any knowledge of PM 2.5. Third, some students at Delhi IIT understood the health related risks, but did not know specific particles such as PM 2.5. It was evident through our conversations that there existed a lack of awareness. However, this spectrum of knowledge contradicted Dr. Pachauri, the chancellor of TERI, as he indicated that India was cognizant of PM 2.5 and air quality health hazards. Indeed, students at his environmentally conscious university knew of PM 2.5, however, this was primarily from their educational background. This suggests a gap between policy makers and the public, one that is filled by bottom-up force in China. Addressing Air Pollution: China: Our meeting with Guangzhou city officials, concerning their five-year plan, provided insight towards the current and future role of the government in addressing the environment. Themes of their presentation included improved quality of life, low carbon economy, and economic development. Green urban landscape plans and rhetoric demonstrated a desire to be an ecological city. When asked, “how will the government balance economic growth with                                                                                                                           5  Richard Dobbs and Shirish Sankhe, “Comparing urbanization in China and India,” McKinsey Global Institute, July 2010,



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environmental sustainability,” the official cited alternative transportation modes, but mainly focused on “environmental industries.” The official cited the LED industry as an example of an ‘environmental industry’ because its product is more environmentally friendly than traditional products. However, even though hosting the LED industry Guangzhou grows economically and exports an environmentally sustainable product, it does not improve the carbon footprint of its own city. Environmental industries lower Guangzhou’s carbon footprint on a global scale, but the residents are still affected by factory emissions. Economic growth preceded the rhetoric of green cities, which suggests that the economy is the priority metric the central government uses to rank cities and officials. Not all of environmental protection spawns from a top-down approach. NGOs and grass root movements also contribute to the awareness of air pollution. One of our tour guides worked for BIKEGZ, an eco-NGO. This NGO promoted the use of bikes and reported air quality via Weibo. The promotion of bike usage aims at cutting down on vehicular emissions and thus, a cleaner city. From a private sector lens, rapid urbanization has provided large opportunities for real estate developers, such as Vanke, to expand cities. Mr. Lei, a member of Vanke’s office of sustainability, described how uncontained dust from construction contributed to approximately 20% of the city’s total. Yet, he described how Vanke was leading the industry in sustainability initiatives citing their commitment to eco-innovations in their R&D lab in Dongguan. He acknowledged that increasing levels of PM 2.5 has led to a higher incidence of respiratory disease, and stated that Vanke is doing its part to decrease its carbon footprint. However, he commented that the majority of the industry does not practice similar environmental standards. Further he stated that companies would focus primarily on economic gain until the government created and implemented environmental protection policy. Sustainable implementation likely leads to long term cost minimization when taking into account health care and quality of life. However, the developer industry is not held responsible for these social externalities, and thus forgoes eco-friendly practices for short-term gain. India: From our conversations in India, there was not the same rhetoric and urgency as in China for environmental sustainability. The overwhelming conception of environmental sustainability was its second to economic development. First, from a private sector perspective, the representative from Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate consultancy group, cited that businesses are not concerned with health effects of poor air quality, but rather the costs savings of green technology. Moreover, the representative mentioned that investors look for locations with amenities and a general good quality of life for its workers. This suggests that worker productivity and consumer tastes drive their development recommendations, not the environment. Similarly, a representative from DLF, the largest real estate firm in India, claimed limited interest in developing green technologies, unlike Vanke in China. Second, from our conversation with the Delhi Metro, we noted a public-private perspective similar to that of the private sector: the environment as positive externality to certain economic development policies. The main focus of the metro was to improve urban 5    

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infrastructure and reduce congestion - its by-product was to reduce emissions. The metro did significantly reduce traffic, as they estimated to have reduced congestion use by 117,489 vehicles from 2007 to 2011, correlating to a decrease in air pollution. Again though, the rhetoric placed the environment as a secondary benefit. Third, India’s judicial system has played a pivotal role in decreasing air pollution. A student from TERI University informed us of an example. A lawyer in India filed litigation directly to the Supreme Court, which eventually in 2004, led to a mandate to convert all public transport and auto rickshaws from diesel to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) – the lawsuit succeeded. Prior to the litigation, the students informed us that the visibility was obscured such that one could not see past a city block. CNG burns cleaner than diesel and thus brought upon immediate improvement to the air quality in the city. Fourth, publically we saw one example - the restriction zone around the Taj Mahal. The Taj has been turning black over the years from air pollution. The government responded, creating a zone that restricts airplane flights and manufacturing around the Taj - a 10, 400 sq km zone called the Taj Trapezium Zone.6 The pollution drivers were forced away from the Taj Mahal, and thus pollution was displaced to another location. When speaking with the students at TERI University, this method seemed to be working in the context of the Taj, but is not sustainable solution on a grander level. Conclusion: Our local observations about air quality - poor visibility and air sensor data - to a certain extent affirm the air pollution as cited by the New York Times, yet also demonstrate that poor air quality does not always create an environment like in Beijing. More important for future urbanization though, is how each country will address air pollution. In short, we did not observe the same conversation and pressure from the public in India as we did in China - there was little to no push from the bottom-up. Chinese citizens were much more aware of air pollution, and from multiple sources: Internet, NGOs and the media. In India, there was some concern over air pollution, but overall, our conversations exposed fewer concentrated efforts to address air pollution - one example was the successful lawsuit for CNG use in public vehicles. India and China are on course to continue rapid urbanization in the future, as they are predicted by McKinsey Global Institute to produce 40% of the world’s urban growth between 2005 and 2025.7 With this in mind, India’s urban environmental conditions will worsen, possibly to the severity of Chinese cities. If India is to avoid China’s current circumstances, it seems they would benefit from bottom-up pressure, as in China. Increased NGO and grassroots conversation could lead to increased awareness of air quality which would lead to bottom-up inspired top-down response from the government. This pressure can push private and public policy changes before urban foundations are cemented and prevent India from following an environmentally unsustainable path dependency.                                                                                                                             6

V K Handa, The Times of India, May 4 2008, 7  Richard Dobbs and Shirish Sankhe, “Comparing urbanization in China and India,” McKinsey Global Institute, July 2010,



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