Are Fossil Fuels to Blame for New Delhi’s Air Pollution? Part 2

In part one of this series, the non-fossil fuel sources of air pollution were evaluated. Part two explores the air pollution that can be attributed to fossil fuels.

Source: Marshall Distel

The History of the Air Pollution Crisis

Air pollution is not a new problem for New Delhi. The capital city and its 27 million residents have struggled for years with issues related to air quality. The problem first gained global recognition after a 1991-1994 study conducted by the World Bank Development Research Group concluded that average total levels of particulate matter in New Delhi exceeded the World Health Organization’s annual average standard by approximately five times (Cropper et al, 1997). The World Bank Development Research Group also concluded that New Delhi air pollution was adversely impacting life expectancy within the region. A subsequent report released in 1997 by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests highlighted the fact that over 3000 metric tons of toxic air pollutants were released every day in New Delhi (Rizwan et al, 2013).

New Delhi’s air has been deemed the world’s most toxic because of very high concentrations of particulate matter. Particulate matter is a mixture of extremely small organic and inorganic particles that become suspended in air. These particles form within the atmosphere as a wide array of pollutants mix together to form chemical reactions. New Delhi has particularly high concentrations of particulate matter that measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which poses as a significant health risk to humans (Gardiner, 2015). Particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter has the ability to infiltrate deep within the lungs to cause serious health problems.

Source: Marshall Distel

Fossil-Fueled Mass Motorization

Vehicular pollution is a contributing source of localized air pollution in New Delhi. According to New Delhi’s Department of Transport, there are nearly 7.6 million vehicles registered in New Delhi, which represents an increase of 5.4 million vehicles since 1994 (NCT of Delhi, 2017). Research has shown that nearly two-thirds of the air pollution in New Delhi can be linked directly to vehicle emissions (Rizwan et al, 2013). Moreover, vehicular pollution is particularly disconcerting because the emissions are released at near-ground level, which exposes more humans to these toxic tailpipe emissions (Kathuria, 2001). As New Delhi has become increasingly urbanized, its streets frequently experience peak periods of traffic gridlock, which greatly reduces the efficiency of motorized vehicles (Bengali, 2016).

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Beginning in the 1990s, India started to initiate policies to curb vehicular emissions. Pollution control measures include the requirement in 1995 to have all passenger cars outfitted with catalytic converters, the 1998 law to ban leaded fuels and the regulations in 2000 to reduce benzene content in gasoline and reduce the sulfur content of diesel fuel (Rizwan et al, 2013). While new standards have been introduced to reduce tailpipe emissions, large quantities of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and other fine particulate matter are still released into the atmosphere from motorized vehicles (Frumkin, 2002). From the 1970s through the early 1990s, the contribution of vehicular pollution increased from 23% to 63% in New Delhi (Kathuria, 2001). The expansion of total vehicle miles travelled has offset the progress that has been made from reducing total tailpipe emissions.

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Coal-Fired Power Plants

Coal power generation has been rapidly expanding in India and throughout other developing countries around the world (Gupta & Spears, 2017). Currently, nearly 78% of power generated in India comes from coal-fired power plants, which makes it one of the world’s biggest consumers of this fossil fuel (Varadhan, 2017). Coal power generation is a major contributor to global carbon emissions and adversely impacts air quality and public health (Gupta & Spears, 2017). In addition to having coal-fired power plants that are less efficient than those that can be found in more developed countries like the United States, Indian coal has a very high ash content. For example, coal that is produced in the United States typically has an ash content that is between 7.5 and 20 percent by weight compared to Indian coal, which generally has an ash content that is between 35 and 50 percent (Cropper et al, 2012).

The health impacts of outdated coal-fired power generation include frequent asthma attacks, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and premature death (Guttikunda et al, 2015). Recent studies have projected that the health externalities of generating power from coal in India are very significant (Gupta & Spears, 2017). On an annual basis, it is estimated that coal-fired power plants in India emit over 580 kilotons of toxic particulates that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (Guttikunda et al, 2015). Emissions from coal power generation also contain hazardous levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and numerous other toxic compounds. The elderly, young children, and people with chronic respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to adverse health effects from coal-related pollution (Rizwan et al, 2013).

Source: Marshall Distel

Solutions for New Delhi

New Delhi’s air pollution crisis has threatened the fabric of life in India’s capital city. The health impacts alone should pressure the government to identify concrete solutions to alleviate this crisis. The Indian economy has also been impacted as foreign investors and international businesses have expressed concerns about the situation. Some foreign embassies located in New Delhi have also issued warnings to diplomats with staff that have young children, as the toxic air has become particularly dangerous for youth population. It’s important for policymakers in India to recognize that the implementation of new policies and programs are needed to effectively alleviate the air pollution crisis. In addition to continuing to support programs and policies that reduce emissions from New Delhi’s transportation system, a number of comprehensive solutions are needed to address other sources of air pollution like older coal-fired power plants, dirty cooking fuels, crops burning, waste management, and large-scale construction sites.


Bengali, S. (2016). To fight the world’s worst air pollution, New Delhi forces cars off the roads. Los Angeles Times.

Cropper et al. (2012). The Health Effects of Coal Electricity Generation in India. RFF DP 12-25. Harvard University.

Cropper et al. (1997). The Health Effects of Air Pollution in Delhi, India. The World Bank Development Research Group.

Frumkin, H. (2002). Urban Sprawl and Public Health. Emory University. 117(3): 201–217.

Gardiner, H. (2015). Delhi Wakes Up to an Air Pollution Problem It Cannot Ignore. New York Times.

Gupta, A., and Spears, D. (2017). Health externalities of India’s expansion of coal plants: Evidence from a national panel of 40,000 households. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. Volume 86, 262-276.

Guttikunda et al. (2015). Regulating air pollution from coal-fired power plants in India. Political Weekly. 62-67.

Kathuria, V. (2001). Vehicular Pollution control in Delhi, India – Are the efforts enough? The Beijer Institute.

NCT of Delhi. (2017). Vehicular Pollution in Delhi. Government of NCT of Delhi, India.

Rizwan et al. (2013). Air pollution in Delhi: Its Magnitude and Effects on Health. Indian Journal of Community Medicine. 38(1): 4–8.

Varadhan, S. (2017). India to phase out 5.5 GW of coal-fired power plants. Reuters.

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