• Six of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India.
  • New Delhi has the worst air pollution of any capital city.
  • Air pollution kills 1.25 million people in India every year.

India’s capital is home to some of the country’s best-known landmarks, like the Red Fort, India Gate and the Parliament Building. The trouble is, they’re often hidden in a haze of smog blanketing the city.

New Delhi faces some of the worst air pollution of any global capital, according to the latest World Air Quality Report from IQAir. And Indian cities make up six of the world’s 10 most-polluted urban areas.

Tackling the challenge

Air pollution is a big problem in India – researchers say it kills more than 1 million in the country every year. On average its cities exceed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for the amount of particulate pollution (PM2.5) in the atmosphere by 500%, according to the IQAir report.

Air pollution
Top 10 worst polluted cities in the world, according to IQAir.
Image: World Air Quality Report 2019, IQAir

Fine particulates, specks of dust and soot 30 times smaller than a human hair, cause stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer, according to the WHO, which estimates air pollution claims 4.2 million lives worldwide annually. In total, 90% of the world's population breathe harmful air.

New Delhi’s problems are caused by fumes from its sclerotic traffic and accentuated by diesel generators and the burning of fossil fuels in cooking by less-well-off families. Industry plays its part, as does the burning of waste and farmers setting fields alight after crops are harvested.

Giridhar Babu, a professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health, told The Lancet the poorest communities are the most vulnerable to air pollution, as they often live or work close to highly industrialized or commercial locations.

India is making some progress in this area, thanks in part to its National Clean Air Programme which aims to reduce air pollution levels by up to 30% by 2024. The country is also planning what it calls the world’s largest expansion of renewable energy by 2022.

A woman crosses a railway line on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis - RC2IBD99JZVM
Delhi, India, has the worst air pollution of any capital city in the world.
Image: REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Beijing’s rapid turnaround

China is another country determined to tackle air pollution in its cities. Its capital, Beijing, once one of the most polluted cities on the planet, has dropped out of IQAir’s rankings of the top 200 most polluted cities.

Air pollution in the city has fallen sharply since it hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, driven by controls on coal-fired boilers and tighter rules on industry. China’s own emission standards for cars and vans will mirror the latest European standards.

Particulate levels in Beijing have halved in the last decade and sulphur dioxide dropped by 83% between 2013 and 2017. Its clean air efforts have been hailed as a model for other cities to follow by the UN Environment Programme.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

China is also currently investing more in solar energy than any other nation, accounting for 45% of all global investment in solar. By 2024 it is expected to be generating twice as much power from solar as the US.

Although Chinese cities achieved a 9% drop in particulate levels in 2019, though, 98% of the nation’s urban areas still exceed WHO guidelines and 53% also exceed China’s less stringent national targets.

To be sure, pollution - and tracking its impact - is a major problem around the globe and not just an issue in India and China. Pakistan also made IQAir's top rankings, for instance.

Additionally, as IQAir explains, many populations around the world still lack access to real-time air pollution data, especially within Africa and the Middle East.

To address this, according to IQAir a range of global citizens and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are attempting to fill in data gaps with their own data sensors.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020 highlights the dangers posed by air pollution and records that 90% of millennials (people born after 1980) expect the health effects caused by it to worsen in 2020.

The Forum’s Alliance for Clean Air, which brings together the public and private sectors to tackle air pollution, plans to leverage $20 million to fund projects to address the problem.