Skip to content


Guest post: Air, health, and coal in India

Blog Post6 min read

This blog post was written by Sapna Gopal and was originally published at India Climate Dialogue:

If India reduced its air pollution to comply with the air quality standard of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Indians could live about four years longer on average, according to a study published on September 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal. If the country reduced pollution to comply with its national standards (lower than the WHO), its people could live more than one year longer on average, the study said.

“These results greatly strengthen the case that long-term exposure to particulate air pollution causes substantial reductions in life expectancy. They indicate that particulates are the greatest current environmental risk to human health, with the impact on life expectancy in many parts of the world similar to the effects of every man, woman and child smoking cigarettes for several decades,” co-author Michael Greenstone, director of Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago (EPIC), told “The histories of the United States, parts of Europe, Japan and a handful of other countries teach us that air pollution can be reduced, but it requires robust policy and enforcement.”

The study found that a Chinese policy is causing people in northern China to live 3.1 years less than people in the south due to air pollution concentrations that are 46% higher. These findings mean that every additional 10 microgrammes per cubic metre of particulate matter pollution (PM10) reduces life expectancy by 0.6 years. The elevated mortality is entirely due to an increase in cardio-respiratory deaths, indicating that air pollution is the cause of reduced life expectancies in northern China.

Air Quality-Life Index

The results from this paper can be used to quantify the number of years that air pollution reduces lifespan around the globe. Greenstone and his colleagues at EPIC used the finding that an additional 10 microgrammes per cubic metre of PM10 reduces life expectancy by 0.6 years to develop a new pollution index, which has been named the Air Quality-Life Index (AQLI).

The AQLI translates particulate pollution concentrations into the impact on lifespan. It provides a reliable measure of the potential gain in life expectancy communities could see if their pollution concentrations are brought into compliance with WHO, national or some other standard. Unlike much of the research linking air pollution and human health consequences, the AQLI is based on the consequences of sustained exposure to air pollution and plausibly isolates the impact from other factors that could affect health. It serves as an important complement to the frequently used Air Quality Index (AQI), which is a complicated function of air pollution concentrations and does not map directly to health.

The new index allows users to better understand the impact of air pollution on their lives by calculating how much longer they would live if the pollution in the air they breathe were brought into compliance with national or WHO standards. “The AQLI uses critical data and information gathered from our China research and applies it to every country, allowing billions of people around the world who are exposed to high air pollution levels to estimate how much longer they would live if they breathed cleaner air,” Greenstone explained.

Air pollution and climate change

Air pollution and climate change are closely related, according to the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. “The main sources of CO2 emissions — the extraction and burning of fossil fuels — are not only key drivers of climate change, but also major sources of air pollutants, it said.

Currently, an estimated 4.5 billion people around the world are exposed to particulate pollution levels that are at least twice what the WHO considers safe. India is one of the most polluted countries in the world and air pollution is a major threat to health.

“Some of the greatest gains would be seen in the country’s largest cities, such as Delhi. There, people could live six years longer if the country met its national standards, and nine years longer if the country met WHO standards,” the EPIC study said. “The people of Kolkata and Mumbai could live roughly 3.5 years longer if the country met WHO standards.”

In too many instances, the current policy imposes significant costs on industries without receiving sufficient pollution and health benefits. There are great opportunities for India to pursue regulatory policies that reduce air pollution, extend lives and decrease the regulatory burden on industries. Whether the WHO standard or a less stringent one is right for India is a difficult political decision that involves trade-offs between growth and, as the paper demonstrates, longer lives, Greenstone told

“Naturally, India is searching for the best way to balance the dual and, at times, conflicting goal of economic growth and a clean environment,” he said. “The study highlights that improvements in air pollution offer concrete benefits in terms of longer lives and the least costly way to gain these health improvements is to pursue market based regulatory approaches, like cap-and-trade for particulates, that is built upon a foundation of reliable monitoring of industries.”

Renewable energy can help

Renewables too can help in India although electric cars are probably unlikely to add much at this point because the Indian grid relies so heavily on coal. The best bet is to devise market-based regulations that target particulate air pollution emissions, added Greenstone.

India is already taking action to reduce pollution. In fact, EPIC-India is currently working with the central government and several state pollution control boards to implement India’s first emissions trading programme for particulate pollution. This will be the world’s first trading programme specifically for particulate pollution. “However, the programme is still in its pilot phase,” said Greenstone. “For it to be successful, it is critical for regulators to insist that industries install reliable and robust monitoring devices.”

Reduce coal dependency

In India, districts that got a coal plant between 2005 and 2012 saw a worsening of respiratory health, reveals a study published in April this year in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. Titled Health externalities of India’s expansion of coal plants: Evidence from a national panel of 40,000 households, authored by Aashish Gupta of Population Studies Centre (PSC) of the University of Pennsylvania and Dean Spears of University of Texas. The study says this pattern is specific to respiratory health and coal plants, which suggest that coal-fired plants are causing the bad effects.

“One reason that some economists do not give too much importance to climate change is that its damages will be in the future, but these costs to the health and well-being of the Indian population and workforce are happening now. That means that reducing India’s reliance on coal would not only be an important step towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it would also have substantial health co-benefits today,” Spears told “These health co-benefits are especially important for India, where air pollution is uniquely terrible, and where many people’s houses do not have the sort of walls, doors and windows that keep air pollution out. This is true in rural places and urban places, and means even buying an expensive air filter is not enough to guarantee healthy air.”

Such evidence has led some writers, such as philosopher Dale Jamieson, to conclude that no more coal plants should be built. Deciding whether this is true depends on how much the total benefit of a new coal plant (the value-for-money of the electricity relative to the next best source of electricity) compares with the total social cost, meaning both the future climate cost and the costs to many people’s health and productivity today.

“This is a quantitative economic question. Finding a credible estimate of the total social cost of a new coal plant for Indians present and future should be a top priority for policy-relevant economics research in India,” said Spears. “Given the falling costs of renewables, the health costs may not need to be enormous for Jamieson to be correct.”

Indoors polluted too

Air pollution may have killed around 600,000 Indians in 2012, according to WHO. With coal production in India set to double by 2020, the situation appears slated to get worse. In India, 49% of cooking is still done with firewood; 8.9% use cow dung cakes; 1.5% coal, lignite or charcoal; 2.9% kerosene; 28.6% liquefied petroleum gas (LPG); 0.1% electricity; 0.4% biogas; and 0.5% other means.

About 80% of rural households rely on biomass fuel, making India the country with the largest population lacking access to cleaner fuel for cooking. The result is the worst indoor air pollution situation in the world. “There are many reasons to suspect that the current government solution of providing LPG stoves to poor households may not take us very far,” Gupta told


r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

501(c)(3) Status

Privacy Policy

Research Themes

Content by Category

© 2024 r.i.c.e.