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Pollution in India is shortening lives. 10 years could be added to the average life span of the residents of the National Capital Territory of Delhi and its neighbors if the country’s pollution levels are pulled down to the World Health Organization’s levels, according to an analysis by The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). In the other major cities of Mumbai and Kolkata, people would live for roughly 2.8 and 5.2 years more, respectively. 

Currently, Indian cities make up 70 percent of the 50 most polluted cities in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the cleanest cities in the world are in North America and Europe. However, these countries, by virtue of outsourcing labor, are also “outsourcing pollution.” 


Ravi Sharma/Unsplash

This idea of “outsourcing” pollution relates to the concept of a “carbon loophole” which, according to a study by Daniel Moran, Ali Hasanbeigi, and Cecilia Springer called  “The Carbon Loophole in Climate Policy” refers to “the embodied greenhouse gas emissions associated with production of goods that are ultimately traded across countries.” These emissions hinder the current global efforts to decarbonize the world economy and are not accounted for; this distorts the perspective on promising climate trends. The research supports this argument by giving an example: “many achievements of reducing emissions by developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol would actually appear as emissions outsourced to developing countries.” 


Steel, cement, and glass, along with consumer goods like food and clothing, are frequently produced in countries with lax pollution controls and then exported to countries with aggressive climate targets. This way, the latter maintains its sustainability standards.


India’s largest export partner is the United Share, with a lion’s share of 16.94 percent of its total share of overall exports. The next in line is the United Arab Emirates, which holds 9.2 percent of the overall percentage. 

India’s most exported goods include petroleum products, precious metals and stones, electronics, and textiles. The production of all of these includes the emission of carbon. The “outsourced” emissions can be measured by comparing a country’s consumption emissions with its territorial emissions. 

Consumption emissions reveal the carbon footprint that is produced by a country’s consumption of goods and services, including imports. On the other hand, territorial emissions are the emissions that are caused by the production of goods and services within a country’s borders, including exports. For example, to produce 10 pieces of cloth, country A’s territorial emissions amount to 20 tonnes of carbon. Country A exports 4 of these pieces to country B. This would make A’s consumption emissions 12. 

In this case, A ends up emitting more carbon than it is actually producing; which is the case with India. On the opposite end, India’s high-income trade partners, picked from different parts of the world – the United States of America, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Singapore, and Germany – consume more than they emit. And since these emissions are not within the boundaries of their country, they are able to maintain cleaner air for their citizens to breathe.

The consequence of this clean air is better health, which plays a part in the larger economic functions of a country. The economic development benefits of sustainability “consists of improvements in the economic growth, competitiveness, and vitality of a community.” published The Institute for Local Government, which is a California based nonprofit that aims to promote a good government at the local level.


But sustainability comes at a cost; according to the World Bank, in a policy research paper, “The UN estimates that $5 trillion to $7 trillion per year between 2015 and 2030 is needed to achieve a set of SDGs [sustainable development goals] globally, with the estimates being $3.3 trillion to $4.5 trillion per year in developing countries, mainly for basic infrastructure, food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, health and education.” 


The paradox then is that developing countries need to improve their economies in order to adopt sustainable practices, however, they cannot do so without fossil fuels. In 2015, at the Paris Accords, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi said that India needs the right to emit carbon for at least 15 more years to support their growth. “Climate justice demands that, with the little carbon space we still have, developing countries should have enough room to grow,” he said. 

“While India is developing roads or infrastructure that produces carbon emissions, developed nations only need to invest in maintaining the infrastructure. That is why their emissions are decreasing and ours are increasing,” says Ravindra Khaiwal, a professor of environmental health at PGIMER, a public university in Chandigarh, India.

Most developing countries that have decreased poverty levels and improved their economies have also seen an exponential increase in their carbon emissions. But this pollution then hinders the economic growth due to its health implications; according to the World Bank, “Lost labor income due to fatal illness from PM 2.5 pollution in 2017 was in the range of $30-78 billion, equal in magnitude to about 0.3-0.9 percent of the country’s GDP.” PM 2.5 is an air pollutant that is becomes a hazard human health when its levels in air are high. 

Perhaps the biggest injustice of climate change has been that the countries that will suffer both environmentally and economically due to the global rise in temperature, were not the initial contributors to the phenomenon. Meanwhile, those who did have are now reaping the rewards of their accumulated wealth by switching to sustainability. 


Sustainability picks up with the signing of the first global climate agreement at the The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1990. Most developed countries are working towards a decreasing trend in net carbon emissions at the moment. 

Another contributor to climate change is “land use change” which is defined as any human alteration of the natural environment. Urban growth is one of the developments that causes irreversible destruction. On the other hand, some modifications, such the abandoning of agricultural land and the restoration of forests, can try to rectify earlier damage. Land use change is a widespread phenomenon – roughly three-quarters of the Earth's terrestrial surface has been transformed by humans in the last thousand years. Not only have the dynamics of infectious disease transmission changed significantly as a result of these changes in land use and cover. Land use change the second largest contributor of greenhouse-gas emissions, falling just behind heat and electricity production,

Food systems have been disrupted, vector borne diseases have increased, mental health problems are at a high, and lastly, respiratory diseases are increasing, especially among non-smokers. These are signs of climate change shifting the functioning of the world by impacting human health. The most vulnerable and disadvantaged people, such as women, children, ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants or displaced people, elderly populations, and those with underlying health issues, are disproportionately affected by these climate-sensitive health concerns.

Extreme weather conditions have become common, with Pakistan recently witnessing severe floods that cost $30 billion in damages, led to the loss of 1500 lives and one-third of the country being underwater. The primary reason for such a massive natural disaster? Global warming. Pakistan is not one of the biggest contributors to the global emissions, yet remains one of the most polluted countries in the world. Pakistan is in the same boat as India, with its top 5 export partners being almost the same, in a different order. 


The 27th “conference of parties”, or COP27 – which is an annual global climate summit organized by the UN – saw a historic agreement this year. For the first time richer countries will pay “compensation” to poorer countries.  A loss and damage fund was created to help vulnerable countries, especially at times like those faced by Pakistan. However, the logistics of the fund are still unclear. The biggest hesitation being that countries like the United States do not want to be held liable for greenhouse gas emissions.

Photo: © Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Ritzau Scanpix

“If we can calculate carbon tax, the loss and damage policy will be very easy,” says Khaiwal. Carbon tax refers to the tax levied on countries for the emissions required to produce goods and services. Khaiwal says that these emissions depend on the technology and raw material used to produce goods and services; this leads to an inequality in terms of carbon emissions and complicates the calculation of carbon taxing. However, Khaiwal believes that the loss and damage fund will pave way for carbon taxing in the near future.

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