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Opinion | Lessons from Los Angeles that can help India fight air pollution

What took Americans 40 years to accomplish could take us much less time if we choose to learn from their smog experience

In 1943, in the middle of World War II, residents of Los Angeles woke up to find their eyes burning, the air smelling of bleach, and visibility reduced to only a few blocks. Some thought the city was under attack. It soon became clear, however, that the smog was caused not by an external enemy, but by the city’s own vehicles and factories.

This was just the beginning of Los Angeles’ persistent battle with polluted air. While the city’s air pollution woes were exacerbated by its geography—mountains to its north and east create an inversion layer that traps pollution—they were far from unique. A smog incident in 1948 killed 20 people in the small town of Donora, Pennsylvania, and made half of the town’s population sick. A six-day smog in New York City in 1953 likely caused or contributed to an estimated 230 deaths, according to medical researchers.

Despite evidence that dirty air was killing Americans, it was not until 1955 that the US passed its first federal air pollution legislation. It took an additional 15 years for Congress to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970, which established nationwide monitoring and oversight. As a result, from 1970 to 2017, aggregate national emissions of six common pollutants dropped an average of 73%. Today, the US has some of the cleanest air in the world.

Though it took time, we made progress toward meaningful change. India now faces some of the same challenges we faced in the past. But if India learns from our experiences, it might be able to accomplish in much less time what took us 40 years to do—ensure that our citizens have cleaner air to breathe. These are the lessons we learned:

First, we needed to develop a scientific understanding of what causes air pollution in each geographic area. Second, we needed to develop local, regional, and national-level legislation to enforce clean air initiatives—and the technologies to help companies comply. Third, we needed to monitor and adjust our approach, because air pollution is a long-term challenge.

Los Angeles’ experience exemplifies these lessons. As the city looked to clean its air, some focused on causes with little scientific evidence, such as backyard trash incinerators. However, a biochemist named Arie Haagen-Smit, working at the California Institute of Technology, demonstrated that vehicle emissions caused most of Los Angeles’ smog. Through Haagen-Smit’s research, it became clear that if Los Angeles wanted clean air, it had to reduce the number of cars on the road or make them run more cleanly.

Haagen-Smit’s work led to the second key to combatting air pollution—regulation and technological advancement. While California policymakers may have realized that cars were to blame, carmakers were generally not responsive to the city’s need to address air quality issues. Then, in 1970, the Clean Air Act gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) legal authority to regulate vehicle emissions. This led to widespread use of the catalytic converter, an exhaust emission control device that reduces toxic gases and pollutants. Almost immediately, air pollution from cars decreased. Now, new passenger vehicles in the US are 98-99% cleaner than those cars from the 1960s, and air quality has improved even as an increasing number of people are driving more than ever.

Third, the effort to keep our air clean is never finished. Los Angeles’ air quality has declined in recent years in a way that scientists do not fully understand. We continue to monitor air quality and bring new technologies to bear on this challenge.

Finally, there is a persistent myth that reducing air pollution hurts economic growth. This has not been borne out by our experience. A recent EPA study found that, taking median estimates, every dollar invested in clean air resulted in a $30 benefit. During the 47 years in which our six common pollutants dropped an average of 73%, gross domestic product grew by 324%. Much of this economic benefit is attributable to fewer lost school days and workdays due to illness, lower medical costs, and fewer premature deaths associated with lower levels of ambient particulate matter.

The economic benefits of clean air are not limited to improved health and productivity. Clean air improves crop and timber yields, benefiting farmers and foresters. It also encourages tourism, recreation, and healthy living.

The US supports India’s efforts to reduce air pollution. We have technologies that can help—including scrubbers that reduce thermal power plant emissions, tools that retrofit diesel vehicles to reduce emissions, and cutting-edge electric vehicle technologies. Our leading scientists are also working with Indian counterparts to better understand air pollution. However, our most important contribution might be the lessons learned from our own imperfect struggle for clean air. We know it takes sound science, strong regulations, relevant technology, and a long-term commitment to achieve results.

The government of India and its people are already moving in the right direction. The National Clean Air Programme, with its focus on good, local data to inform effective local solutions, is just one example of India’s commitment to reducing air pollution. The US stands ready to support this important effort, because we know that a healthy India is critical for a prosperous future.

Kenneth I. Juster is the US ambassador to India

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