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Ritwick Dutta on Why Air Quality Data Is So Critical: Fighting for Blue Skies

“India has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world,” says Ritwick Dutta, the managing trustee for the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), and Indian advocacy and law group. And yet, for the “bulk” of places that are polluted, there is no air quality data available, he says. “Even where that data is available, people don’t understand the implication of that particular high level of pollution on their health.”

Unfortunately, India is not alone. Ninety two percent of the world’s population live in places where air quality levels exceed World Health Organization safe limits. Air pollution is now the number one environmental health risk in the world.

Short-term outdoor air pollution exposure can cause coughing, shortness of breath, and eye, nose, throat and lung irritation. Chronic exposure is linked to heart and lung disease, cancer and asthma. In total, some 3 million people die every year from causes linked to outdoor air pollution exposure.

Air pollution also jeopardizes food security by reducing critical crop yields and contributes to billions of dollars’ worth of lost labor income. Climate pollutants have been associated with decreased monsoon precipitation in the northern hemisphere and more frequent and severe droughts globally.

How can such a serious problem go unnoticed? A big part of the problem is lack of data. As President Andrew Steer says, “we treasure what we measure,” Which is why WRI, OpenAQ and other partners are working hard to put air quality back in humanity’s good graces.

Dutta spoke recently at WRI’s Washington office during a three-day workshop on air quality data, hosted by the WRI’s Governance Center in its role as secretariat of the Access Initiative, WRI Ross Center, and OpenAQ.

“Air quality data is very very critical, very important in most of the legal fights we take on,” Dutta says, “because it convinces the court as well as the public how serious the issue is.” LIFE has brought cases to the Indian Supreme Court, the National Green Tribunal, and the Central Empowerment Committee to safeguard natural resources.

“We need two things, importantly,” says Dutta. “First is data across different cities [and] places…and second, in a form that people can understand what the poor quality of air means to their lives.”

To help address both problems WRI recently teamed up with OpenAQ, which aggregates publicly available air quality measurements from more than 8,000 locations in 64 countries. Through the partnership, OpenAQs data is now available through ResourceWatch, an Earth monitoring platform led by WRI that makes hundreds of data sets available for public use.

The ability to access timely, reliable and unbiased air quality information is critical for equipping civil society organizations, activists and environmental lawyers like Dutta with the evidence they need to fight for blue skies.

Fighting for Blue Skies is a series of short interviews with air quality activists from around the world. To learn more, access OpenAQ data for YOUR area on ResourceWatch.

Seth Contreras is an Air Quality & Road Safety Associate at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Elizabeth Moses is an Associate for Environmental Democracy Practice at World Resources Institute.