‘Immediate aim for cities like Bengaluru is to achieve national standards in air pollution’

Experts say India should start making progress towards WHO interim targets

As the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its air quality guidelines for the first time in 15 years, it has been evident that the new targets are a far reach for countries such as India, where many cities like Bengaluru are yet to achieve national standards.

But experts in the field have highlighted the urgency in attaining them, pointing out that air pollution at any level is unsafe.

According to the new guidelines the annual PM2.5 mean has been updated to 5 g/m3 as against 10g/m3 in 2005. The annual mean for PM10 is updated from 20 g/m3 to 15 g/m3 and NO2 to 10 g/m3 from 40 g/m3.

But Greenpeace India’s report ‘Airpocalypse IV’ highlighted that out of 287 cities, more than 80% (231) cities/towns had PM10 levels, exceeding the 60 g/m3 limits for PM10 prescribed under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) by the CPCB in 2018.

The report found that only one city/town — Lunglei in Mizoram — had PM10 levels under WHO prescribed levels of 20 g/m3 (for 2018).

In 2020, the organisation said at least 79 of the world’s 100 most populous cities had annual mean PM2.5 air pollution levels that breached the 2005 WHO Air Quality Guidelines, according to data published by IQAir. In Bengaluru, the PM2.5 (g/m3 ) in 2020 was 28 which, Greenpeace says, exceeded the 2021 2021 guidelines by 5.6-fold.

Avinash Kumar Chanchal, Climate Campaigner, Greenpeace India, told The Hindu that the WHO is clear that achieving the guidelines should be the ultimate aim for all places. “However, it is clear that the guidelines will be easier to achieve in some places than in others. For this reason, the WHO has provided interim targets — stepping stones that governments should attempt to achieve in the short term. Even small improvements in air quality will save lives and improve health,” he said.

Sreekanth Vakacherla, Senior Research Scientist at Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), also agreed that while developed countries could afford to comply with these new standards, it could be a bridge too far for low- and middle-income countries, including India.

Pointing out the differences within India, he said the air pollution in Bengaluru and Delhi cannot be compared. “Delhi’s air pollution is complex due to its geography, extreme weather conditions, local emissions, and transported components. In Bengaluru, though air pollution is less when compared with Delhi, it is still a non-attainment city.”

Mr. Vakacherla said India’s National Clean Air Programme aims to reduce 20-30% air pollution by 2024, keeping the base year as 2017. “Our immediate goal should be to achieve the current national standards. Region-specific strategies to combat air pollution are the need of the hour.”

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