Counting the Cost

What is the cost of India’s deadly air pollution?

Counting the cost of air pollution in India and protests in Hong Kong. Plus, Norway’s response to climate change.

India is home to 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world with some studies indicating nearly 700 million Indians are exposed to unhealthy air

“If you add up the number of years we are losing because of illness, because of the productive time, all of these are coming at huge economic costs,” Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment told Al Jazeera’s Neha Tara Mehta.

As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, India aims to reach the five-trillion-dollar mark over the next few years. But according to the World Bank, the country lost over 8.5 percent of its GDP in 2013 due to air pollution. And the latest research from the Indian Statistical Institute shows that reducing pollution would help the country gain billions.

“If we could cut air pollution to zero, every Indian would be willing to pay about $300 per year to cut that risk. The total benefit would be about $300bn or $400bn per year,” professor E Somanathan, of the Indian Statistical Institute, said.

Experts say there are lessons to be learned from China, when it comes to fixing the country’s poor air quality.

“China puts air pollution not as part of an environment agenda, it is part of the national planning process. So obviously, it is an economic agenda,” Prarthana Borah, India director of Clean Air Asia, said. “We definitely need to integrate air within development policy.”

Over a million Indians died in 2017 because of the country’s dirty air, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study

The Indian government has consistently maintained there is no direct correlation between air pollution and deaths though air pollution has been linked to a third of all lung cancer deaths in India. 

An increasing number of doctors say there is a clear link between air pollution and mortality.

“There is enough data available that air pollution kills,” said Dr Arvind Kumar of the Lung Care Foundation. “Actions should not await the results of scientific studies because that may take 10, 20 years and by that time we would have lost millions of people unnecessarily to this menace.”

Earlier this year, the government introduced the country’s first National Clean Air Programme that aims to bring down the pollution levels in over 100 cities by 20-30 percent over the next five years.

The country’s environment court, the National Green Tribunal is now pushing the government to set higher targets for the programme and advance the deadlines.

“Any reduction target will require effective multi-sector strategies, system reforms, monitoring, compliance and deterrence for quicker uptake of solutions,” said Roychowdhury.

Industrial pollution remains a cause of serious concern in the country. According to the latest Greenpeace data, the country is the largest emitter of sulphur dioxide in the world – almost entirely because of its use of coal.

Coal-fired thermal power plants across the country are set to switch to cleaner emission technology by 2022 – a substantial extension from the initial deadline of 2017. A recent study estimates that the switch will cost India $12bn.

There are fresh concerns that the standards for nitrogen oxide emissions from thermal plants may be diluted.

“The strictness of regulators isn’t there when it comes to public health. People seem to be losing out against the profit of the industries,” said Sunil Dahiya, campaign specialist at Greenpeace.

Meanwhile, citizens are finding solutions in stocking up on masks and nebulisers to combat the air pollution.

Others are choosing more costly options like pollution-free office spaces and air purifiers that have a price tag between $400 and $2,000.

“This is a short-term solution to a very major problem that needs to be dealt with at the city, state, country level,” Barun Aggarwal, CEO of Breathe Easy Consultants, said.

“Is it elitist? Yes, it is. But if I can afford it, if I can help my kids and my family breathe better air, and help them protect their lungs, I am going to do everything I can.”

What’s the economic cost of Hong Kong’s ongoing protests?

Already under pressure from the US-China trade war, now Hong Kong‘s anti-government protests could plunge the city’s economy into a recession. 

One city-wide strike costs the economy as much as $332m, according to economists.

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas also reports that hotel occupancy rates in June when protests began were three percent down, and July’s figures may show steeper falls with many mainland Chinese reluctant to visit Hong Kong.

“If the protests continue and escalate and become uncontrollable then that will have a significant impact on Hong Kong’s credit rating and that will be a huge negative impact,” economist Stephen Chiu said. “The cost of doing business will be high and that will have an impact on their profits.”

Property-sale values in July were at the lowest level of the year and some analysts expect property prices to fall by 10 percent by the end of the year.

“Not many people are willing to enter the market in this kind of situation,” said Shih Wing-ching of Centaline Property Agency.

How is climate change shaping Norway’s shipping, fishing and oil industries?

In the far north of Norway, the Lofoten Islands are a scene of raw beauty that also meets an important fishing area and a tourism hub for those who want to get up close to nature.

Yet, wealth also lies beneath the water, where geologists have said there is an untapped oil field estimated to be worth $60bn.

Norway is a nation made rich by four decades of oil and gas extraction, with a sovereign wealth fund worth one trillion dollars. But tourist guide Tord Soderlund explains that the oil underneath the island’s waters may not be worth taking a chance on.

“I’m really afraid of the damages that could happen if there is a big oil spill. I wouldn’t take the risk,” Soderlund told Al Jazeera.

Facing major concerns on climate change, Norway’s opposition labour party withdrew its support for Lofoten oil exploration and now there is a majority in parliament to keep the islands off-limits.

“I think the fisheries and the tourism industry is the future more than oil and gas, especially in these Arctic areas,” Labour MP Cecilie Myrseth said.

Climate change has also led some shipbuilders on the west coast of Norway to move towards eco-friendly alternatives like biogas.

And while the days of megaships powered exclusively by solar energy are still in the distant future, initiatives to create expedition ships powered by self-generated electricity are also taking off.

Hybrid and reducing consumption is one thing, but even more interesting is the work that is now going into fully electric shipping,” said Bard Lahn of Cicero Climate Research.

“We’ve seen some initiatives on that in Norway and that is an area where the Norwegian shipping industry might get an advantage in as an early adopter.”