Air quality in congested cities like New Delhi and Bombay is definitely bad. But the levels of air pollution in the Indian countryside are also high.
“Air pollution has a significant impact on our lives. It’s not only a health risk, but also affects the availability of water and the quality of our crops”, says Senior Lecturer Ravi Kant Pathak.
India is a hotspot for air pollution, and not just in the big cities. Just over a year ago, the University of Gothenburg established a research station in the area known as the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which extends from Pakistan and the northern parts of India to Bangladesh along the Ganges River. About 700 million people live in the area, many of them in the countryside, where they earn a living as farmers.
The cause of the poor air quality in the Indo-Gangetic Plain area is, above all, the widespread burning of biofuel. To cook and heat their homes during the winter, the people here burn firewood, coal, cow manure and other biofuels. The concentrations of pollutants such as soot, atmospheric brown carbon and ozone are just as high in the Indian countryside as in populous Beijing. That has a great impact on the people who live there.
“Air pollution is one of the most lethal threats to people on Earth. Each year eight million people die prematurely after being exposed to air pollution indoors and outdoors”, says Ravi Kant Pathak.
He is a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, with responsibility for work at the research station in northern India. Part of the work consists of collecting and analysing data on air quality in the area. Another part concerns informing and educating local communities to increase understanding of the problem and together find solutions. The University of Gothenburg operates the station but collaborates with local organisations in the area and with other higher education institutions and international partners.
“Air quality is not just a national issue, it affects all of us. Air pollutants, which are transported over long distances in the atmosphere, don’t recognise any national borders. We are now trying, with the help of our own research and that of others, to show how this type of pollution can be avoided.”
Air pollutants affect not only our health because of the dangerous particles we inhale. They also affect the climate, which indirectly affects our health. For example, air pollution has an influence on cloud formation, which means that precipitation is affected. In addition, emissions of air pollutants cause ozone to be formed, which can damage crops.
“In a region where many people support themselves by farming, this can be catastrophic”, says Ravi.
Another important aspect of air pollution is the gender perspective. In poorer areas it is mainly women who prepare food over an open fire – a fire that directly affects their health. Women are at risk of premature death to a
greater extent due to the health hazards from pollutants from fires, which also has an impact on their small children.
“The next generation is affected by air pollution even before starting to walk.”
In Sweden we burn wood, too, and according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, our wood fires cause the premature death of about 1,000 people each year. Ravi Pathak believes that wood burning will become more common in Sweden, since our goal is to increase the share of renewable energy sources and reduce fossil fuels by the year 2030. But the question is what then happens to air quality in Sweden?
“We will be able to use the results from the Indo-Gangetic Plain area to predict how air quality will be affected in Sweden if wood burning increases, and what impact this will have on people here.”
The Gothenburg Air and Climate Centre and IGP-Care
The Gothenburg Air and Climate Centre (GAC) is a centre for atmosphere-related research in the region. The centre promotes greater collaboration and better coordination of resources and activities and includes approximately 150 members who are working on atmosphere-related issues.
The research station IGP-Care, Indo-Gangetic Plains Centre For Air Research and Education is situated in the northern parts of India.
PM2.5 is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns and that has clear links to our health, both long and short term. In the Indo-Gangetic Plain area, PM2.5 levels of 300 mg/m3 have been measured during wintertime, compared to an environmental quality standard in Sweden of 25 micrograms/m3.
Black carbon is made up of dark particles formed during incomplete combustion. For example, when burning wood or in diesel engines. Like other particles, black carbon has proven to have strong links to adverse health effects.
Black carbon also has light-absorbing properties. As a result, black carbon in the atmosphere has a warming effect that drives the greenhouse effect. So it is important to reduce black carbon emissions both from the point of view of health and to reduce the climate impact. (Swedish Environmental Protection Agency)