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New Delhi? More Like New Smelly

Another BRIC capital city, another air quality disaster. Move over, Beijing haze. There’s a new deadly, disgusting cloud of smog smothering a different town. New Delhi is the latest Asian mega-city to make the news for its outrageous air pollution. Delhi authorities tried to clear the skies. Metro lines were built, factories were moved out of the city, and buses and taxis were switched from diesel to cleaner compressed natural gas (CNG). But it wasn’t enough. Today, the Financial Times reports, the smog is back:

Progress is being reversed, with 1,400 cars a day being added to the 6.5m already on the streets…vehicles are responsible for over 70 per cent of the “cocktail of deadly pollutants” people breathe.

…[T]he air pollution data out there is very clear,” [Anumita Roychowdhury, an executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment] says. “It’s showing that the pollution levels are rising now, steadily, consistently, and they have gone up much beyond pre-CNG days. That’s the most scary part.”

Beijing’s “airmaggedon” brought international attention to China’s problems with air pollution, but Delhi’s smog reminds us that this is a problem all developing countries must address. The FT quotes an OECD report which warns that “[a]ir pollution is set to become the world’s top environmental cause of premature mortality…with most deaths occurring in China and India.”

Let’s face it: India and China aren’t going to do a lot about the abstract problem of climate change anytime soon, and it’s essentially a waste of time to try. But there are ways of attacking the pollution problems that have broader implications for the ecosystem. Most of the scare projections for global carbon-dioxide levels and rising temperatures assume that China and India will simply replicate Western patterns of energy use as they ascend the development ladder. That doesn’t have to be true. Just as many developing countries went from no phone to cell phones and more or less skipped the expensive move to national coverage with land lines, the developing world can move much faster to a lower intensity, lighter footprint information economy.

Telecommuting and other shifts that can reduce congestion and pollution in the global North can have an even greater impact on the environment in the South. A more sustainable world economy doesn’t require penance and Malthusian sacrifices to the austerity gods; it depends on India and China taking full advantage of contemporary and emerging technology to get greener and richer at the same time.

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