U.S. and India Partner to Address Air Pollution and Promote Development

Remarks by Michael P. Pelletier, Chargé d’Affaires

Air Quality Workshop: Combatting Air Pollution in North India

The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi | May 17, 2016

(As prepared for delivery)

Thank you Dr. Sagnik Dey for your introduction.  I am pleased to be here with the Delhi Health Minister, Mr. Satyender Jain.  I would like to thank the Research Triangle International and the Indian Institute of Technology at Delhi for hosting this event and giving us the opportunity to discuss together a theme that has been dominating the headlines the past few years:  ambient air pollution.

I want to start with a brief discussion of a feeling those of us who live overseas often feel, and which diplomats, who by nature and profession have to constantly put themselves in others’ shoes, frequently feel:  cognitive dissonance.  While many find such dissonance a challenge or a barrier, I prefer the perspective of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great American novelist and author of The Great Gatsby.  He wrote “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

For too long, far too many people have considered combatting air pollution and promoting development to be dissonant or opposing ideas.  I have never understood that perspective, as to me, the ideas clearly complement each other.  Promoting development and combatting air pollution are like different sides of the same coin.  Without one, you cannot have the other.

Today, as you all start this series of workshops which we will take across north India over the next two weeks, I would like to explore that positive nexus between promoting development and combatting air pollution.

In the US in the 50s and 60s, despite of mounting evidence that the effects of air pollution were taking a severe toll on the health of the nation, naysayers cast doubt on the severity of the problem.  They claimed that proposed regulations would stifle job creation and socioeconomic development.

After many attempts to strengthen existing legislation were blocked or watered down in the 1950s and 1960s, conservationist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.  This brilliant book documented how the indiscriminate use of pesticides negatively affected the natural ecosystem and human beings, and Carson thereby launched the modern environmental movement in America.  I remember well being assigned to read and analyze this book in school, and how it affected us all, just as I remember a now-famous public service advertisement that ran on our televisions in the U.S. showing a Native American Indian chief crying as he saw the effects of pollution on our country.  As a child, I remember watching nightly news updates on the smog situation in our major cities, and I remember growing up in New England when in 1971, the Audubon Society labeled Rhode Island’s Blackstone River “one of America’s most polluted rivers.”

These are formative memories for many Americans of my generation, and they helped create and shape our commitment to environmental awareness and responsibility.

Within a decade of the publication of Silent Spring, 43 states passed state air pollution control legislation and the federal government passed the Clean Air Act in 1970.  The same year saw citizens from all walks of life march in the first Earth Day, as well as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Passing and implementing these laws was never easy, but in subsequent decades the nation’s economy has grown fourfold, while pollution levels are a quarter of what they were in the 1960s.  This sustained investment to improve air quality and protect public health has led to handsome dividends.  Every dollar the government invested to implement the Clean Air Act has generated $30 dollars in benefits.  In sum, the Clean Air Act has yielded $2 trillion in benefits, almost all of them related to lives saved, diseases avoided, and worker productivity boosted.  Moreover, the carbon regulations recently announced by President Obama are projected to save thousands of lives and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks by shifting to clean energy.

Thanks to visionary citizens who pushed for change, scientists who collected valuable data and published their findings, innovative businesspersons who took a chance before others would, and the politicians and bureaucrats who passed and implemented the laws in consultation with relevant stakeholders, the United States remains a leader in environmental governance today.

There are some interesting similarities between the United States of 1960 and India in 2015.  Both were led by dynamic leaders whose oratory captured the world’s attention.  These leaders launched ambitious economic plans that led to high rates of economic growth for their youthful societies.  And both countries sought to promote economic development that placed rising pressures on the very resource systems that underpinned those development efforts.

In 2014, the World Health Organization linked air pollution to 7 million deaths worldwide every year. The Global Burden of Disease Report, which is considered the gold standard in global epidemiology, found that air pollution – both indoor and outdoor – is among the world’s ten largest health risk factors.  The report determined that ambient air pollution was responsible for 630,000 premature deaths in India each year, making it the 5th greatest risk factor of all in the country.  That’s more than 1 death per minute.

In a 2008 study published by the Central Pollution Control Board, scientists from India’s top cancer institutes tracked 11,000 school children in Delhi and other cities for three years. They found that particulate pollution had likely caused irreversible reduction in the children’s lung function – effects that will lead to unnecessary suffering later in life.  As a parent of young kids growing up in Delhi myself, I know that I, like you, find that conclusion very troubling.

Finally, the Report of the Steering Committee on Air Pollution and Health-Related Issues published by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in August 2015 recognized adverse health effects when people are exposed to ambient air pollution for short and long periods of time.  The report acknowledges absenteeism from work and school, increased lung cancer, and even death.

As time goes on, and more and more research is done, the direct health impact of air pollution becomes abundantly clear.  Beyond the statistics of premature death, there is the anecdotal information that anyone living in a highly polluted city knows from their day-to-day experience: in the high pollution months more people are sick with respiratory ailments, more work days are lost, and the economy suffers as workers are less productive and school children miss out on their studies.  In 2014, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate – headed by former Mexican President Calderon and made up a “who’s who” of eminent persons from around the world including India — estimated the economic costs of air pollution.  Losses due to premature death from air pollution alone – not including the costs of health care or the losses associated with the grinding suffering of chronic disease – is almost 6 percent of GDP, which nearly cancels out India’s strong rate of economic growth.  That is a number that should certainly attract the attention of policy makers as they assess the cost-benefit analysis of a range of policy options.

Of course, the flip side of this is that concerted action to address air pollution has huge health and economic upsides.  Longer lives and fewer days out of school or work because of illness are critical ingredients of sustainable economic growth.  Equally important is to create the right conditions to attract and retain enterprising businesses and talented people for whom a good quality of life and a healthy and clean environment are powerful incentives.

In our own experience in the United States, cities that formerly had a reputation of being polluted, dirty, and unattractive, have transformed themselves into clean urban centers with growing economies and healthy populations.  Just think of smog-laden Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s and compare it to the much clearer skies you can experience there today to know what a difference concerted, well-planned, and well-executed long-term action can make.  And consider that the improvements in air quality have occurred during a period of unprecedented economic expansion.  Our experience has shown that that improving air quality and economic growth go hand-in-hand.

A major key is public awareness which then spurs science-based policy action.  For the most part, in democratic countries like the U.S. and India, action comes when people understand the level of pollution they are exposed to and the health effects that result.  Indian public awareness of air pollution has grown rapidly, in large part thanks to some excellent reporting by various Indian media outlets and studies conducted by civil society organizations.

Second, the Indian government is publicly recognizing the problem in a much more frank and open manner than has ever been the case in the past.  Minister Javadekar’s assertion that “fresh air is a birth right” for all Indians is truly heartening.  And the attention that Prime Minister Modi devoted to air pollution when he announced India’s new air quality index, shows that this issue is getting the type of high-level political focus needed for effective action.

And third, this is an area where the U.S. and India can do so much together.

I am proud the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board are scheduling a time to meet with the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change to discuss and tackle this important environmental and public health challenge.  But that isn’t all that we’re doing.  The U.S. Agency for International Development is processing grant proposals to help U.S. and Indian scientists better understand ambient air pollution.  Indian and American scientists are studying this question in both countries as well.  The recently launched Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship will allow Indian and American scholars to engage in scientific and technical research related to climate change.

Last month Minister Javadekar and Secretary Kerry signed the Paris Agreement with 172 other countries.  16 countries have already joined the agreement.  Several countries are committed to joining agreement in 2016 – including the United States – and countries like Brazil, Russia, and the EU – have pledged to join the agreement quickly. We look forward to all of our close friends and partners joining us in a similar time frame to facilitate entry into force by the end of 2016.

So, greater awareness through better monitoring and better access to timely information helps give citizens the data they need to make personal choices to protect their health, and gives policymakers the scientific basis they need to mitigate the problem more broadly.  The partnership between the Department of State and the Environmental Protection Agency recognizes air pollution as a serious and growing health threat worldwide. Yet, in many areas, real-time air quality data remains unavailable.  In 2016, the combined DOS-EPA program will provide data from 24 U.S. missions overseas to EPA’s AirNow platform. This platform is also available in India and it can facilitate cooperation between our two nations by promoting joint scientific research and help policy makers make decisions grounded in data.

Improved monitoring helps urban planners better understand the sources of air pollution, where the hot spots of especially bad air are centered, and what steps would yield the greatest benefits in the most economically efficient way.  It also helps health professionals prepare for extreme air pollution events, and save lives.  The sources of the most deadly type of particulate matter are many:  vehicular emissions, coal-fired power plants, household fires for cooking, heating, and lighting, biomass burning from nearby agricultural areas, outdoor fires in the city for heat in the winter by those living outside, dust from building sites, etc.  Source apportionment studies would help disaggregate the problem into its constituent parts, for example providing a better understanding of how accelerating the transition to cleaner fuels, particularly for trucks and other heavy duty vehicles, would improve the air in India’s cities.

The bottom line is that a cleaner future is well within our reach.  The technology to identify the sources of the worst pollution exists, as are the useful experiences and lessons learned of cities around the world that have confronted similar problems in the past and have found ways to clean the air, grow their economies, and improve the lives and health of their citizens.

The Government of India and the Delhi government are already taking action.  I commend their efforts to prepone the introduction of better fuel quality standards from 2024 to 2020.  I admire Delhiites efforts to participate in the odd-even schemes and I am proud that our team at the American Embassy took measures to voluntarily comply with the directive.

And I am excited to see how the private sector can develop technologies to help us commute more efficiently.

I am honored to inaugurate the first of the four workshops in northern India.  This is a wonderful opportunity to discuss challenges, propose solutions, and build a network for future engagement.  I am proud that we are taking action today and I look forward to seeing these workshops unfold over the upcoming days.

I’ve spoken at length about why economic growth and environmental governance are just different sides of the same coin, but it will take some time and concerted effort to advance these critical priorities together.  This is where you as students and faculty come into the picture.  As Benjamin Franklin said once, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”  No one is better equipped to apply those principles than each of you.

So… Thank you for your energy and persistence, and good luck.