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What will it take for us to act faster against air pollution?

What will it take for us to act faster against air pollution?

As a nation, we are familiar with the issue of air pollution. Our cities routinely breach national air quality standards; our pollution levels are egregiously ahead of the more stringent global standards for air quality. And in a very general sense, there is enough awareness about how emissions – whether from stubble burning to vehicles and industries – adds to a constantly increasing reservoir of harmful chemicals in our atmosphere.

But do we know enough to realise that it is no more an issue but an emergency? And what it will take us to act much faster against it? This was a common theme of discussion at the World Sustainability Development Summit’s Day 1 thematic track, ‘Are We Really Aware About Air Pollution and its Impacts?

Delivering the session's welcome remarks, Dr. Sumit Sharma, Director – Earth Science and Climate Change, TERI, explained the stakes at hand. As a health issue, air pollution isn't limited to just emissions at source, but how the particulate matter and gases interact in the atmosphere. Their interplay creates dangerous compounds that trigger respiratory and cardiovascular issues, and even cause cancer. Due to high levels of ozone at breathing level, 20 to 30 per cent of wheat is lost in fields every year.Today, airborne particulate matter is directly contributing to climatic disruptions.

Tackling air pollution becomes even more urgent when we look at global findings. More lives are lost to air pollution than due to alcohol use, tobacco use, war, or tuberculosis, explained Dr. Jonathan Demenge, Head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). For respiratory problems, air pollution causes even more disability than tobacco use, he said, citing a Lancet report.

The challenge, then, is translating this awareness into an imperative for action.

Despite its numerous impacts, air pollution continues to operate as a silent killer, explained Dr. R. Guleria, Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). The sense of emergency that air pollution merits rarely arises. Only adverse episodes of air pollution - such as the Delhi smog of 2016 or the London Smog of 1952 – make it immediately visible and palpable for nations and communities. Another challenge, according to Professor Arun Sharma, Director-Professor, University College of Medical Sciences, is that the media has made pollution a seasonal issue. Though scientists, doctors, researchers, and activists engage with this issue all throughout, the media picks it up mostly during the October to January period. Air pollution completely disappears from headlines in the ensuing months. With the sense of public urgency gone, the desire to act against it diminishes.

Another challenge is people’s resistanceto take action, even when they know about the harmful consequences. For example, Naman Sawhney, a 12-year-old student at the City Montessori School in Lucknow, said ragpickers, who are aware about air pollution, ignore his requests to not burn garbage. Similarly, vehicular emissions are known by all, but engines continue to run at stoplights and in traffic jams. Thus, this is also a problem related to behaviour change.

Dr Archna Kumar, Associate Professor, Lady Irwin College, explained that information alone does not translate into action. To make air pollution an actionable priority, communication cannot be based on an appeal to logic, but instead must be built around people's culture, motivations, emotions, and life priorities. It is now well understood that tackling air pollution is a multi-stakeholder challenge, she explained. What is needed is an appreciation of the many perspectives and contexts of stakeholders, especially in a diverse country like India.