The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The country with the worst air pollution is not the one you’re thinking of

A man wearing a mask walks past trees shrouded with pollution haze in Beijing in 2014. (Andy Wong/AP)
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It’s a never-ending debate in Asia -- whose air quality is worse, China’s or India’s? A new study by Greenpeace released Monday is trying to answer that question.

Analysts looked at NASA satellite images and found that measurements of particulate matter -- the microscopic particles that invade your lungs and can cause cancer and heart disease -- improved impressively in China over the past few years while air quality in India has worsened, with 2015 ranking as India’s most polluted year on record.

The satellite images showed that the levels of PM2.5 particles decreased by 17 percent in China from 2010 to 2015 and 15 percent in the United States while rising 13 percent in India, the study found.

For the first time, Greenpeace found, the average Indian citizen was exposed to more particulate matter than the average Chinese. The images below from Greenpeace show China's air quality worsening, then improving -- while India's has steadily worsened:

The study also found that the average annual PM2 level for India's capital, New Delhi, was also higher than in Beijing -- an average of 81 for Beijing, 128 for Delhi and 12 for Washington, D.C.

China has made a concerted effort to address its air pollution problem in recent years after widespread public outcry over filthy air that put pressure on the government to release better pollution data. The Greenpeace study credits China’s national pollution action plan launched in 2013 for its “impressive” improvement. That included tightening emission standards for coal-fired power plants and heavy industry and increasing emissions monitoring and enforcement.

However, the study notes that pollution levels in China remain “alarmingly high.”

Meanwhile, in India, public outrage has only just begun to coalesce around the problem. Indian newspapers have run high-profile series on air pollution in recent months and the Delhi government has instituted an odd-even day driving plan this winter to control the worsening air.

What Delhi’s air pollution says about India and climate change

The study suggests that India should put in place a pollution action plan that sweeps from Punjab to West Bengal in the northern part of the country, where pollution is the worst, enforce compliance for coal-fired power plants and institute air quality monitoring systems for all major urban centers. India has a dearth of online monitoring systems in place in its cities -- only 39 such stations compared to 1,500 in China, 770 in the United States and 1,000 in Europe, the study found.

Read more:

India launches its own Air Quality Index. Can its numbers be trusted?

Beijing’s air is getting slightly better — here’s how and why

Letter to Obama: Don’t be fooled if Beijing’s skies are blue