Originally published in The South China Morning Post on December 11, 2016

Having grown up in perennially polluted New Delhi, smoggy skies were so unremarkable to me that I didn’t even notice anything was awry in Beijing for years after moving there. Till a spring morning in 2006.

It was an ordinary start to the day in most respects. I ate a quick breakfast of jian bing, crispy dough and egg pancakes brushed with a spicy sauce, and then made my way to my study. It was only when I looked out of the window above my desk that I realised this was anything but an ordinary morning. I blinked hard, gasping in wonder at the apparition: a cerulean blue sky, punctuated by the sweep of rolling hills. For the 10 months I had lived in this apartment, the view from my study had only revealed the low, tiled rooftops of the courtyard homes that clustered around our complex, and beyond that a patch of turbid sky that varied only in its shades of grey. The appearance of the hills felt magical, except it was not magic, merely the absence of air pollution.

Before that moment, I don’t think I had really “seen” the dirty air in China. My first few years in Beijing only evoke romanticised nostalgia. I remember the summers as hot and languid. The autumn was short and crisp, the streets layered with fallen leaves the colours of sunset. Winter conjures images of candied crab apple vendors and fearsome winds from Siberia. In spring the hot-cold sand of the Gobi Desert blanketed the city in gritty orange. It was on this seasonal occurrence that most of the local conversation on pollution used to be focused.

Rich-country expats certainly muttered aplenty about Beijing’s toxic air but my reaction to these were initially akin to that of most Chinese themselves: dismissal as overblown first-world concerns. In China, as in India, the general attitude even to days when the skies were thick enough to cut with a knife was to associate the griminess with weather phenomena like fog and sandstorms, rather than pollution.

In China the tipping point that shifted both awareness of – and attitudes to – air pollution was the 2008 Olympic Games. In the run-up, Beijing went into construction overdrive to retool itself with Olympics-worthy infrastructure, plunging the city into a years-long haze of construction dust. Meanwhile, after having gawped at the successes of China’s history-defying Red Capitalism for years, many foreign journalists found the Olympics a perfect opportunity to hold the Chinese authorities to account for their numerous failings, from media censorship to corruption. Pollution bestrode coverage of the Games, dwarfing everything else. Beijing’s air quality became the litmus test for the Communist Party’s willingness to modify its policy of sacrificing all at the altar of economic growth.

Beijing’s poor air was the result of compound factors ranging from vehicular to industrial sources. But it was exacerbated by unhelpful geography, a feature that Beijing shares with Delhi. The Chinese capital has mountain ranges to its north and west, which prevent the pollution drawn in from the industrial townships to its east and south from escaping.

Also, low temperatures in the winter create an inversion layer, a phenomenon mirrored in Delhi, so that cold air bands get pressed under a warmer air mass, trapping pollutants close to the ground.

As I began to engage with China’s degraded environment as a reporter, the parallel of Delhi’s smoggy skies became harder to ignore. Every Christmas holiday I returned home to putrid air that left my eyes smarting and throat aching as much as anything I had experienced in China.

Yet, whenever I raised the issue with friends, I was met with blank stares or eye-rolling intended to indicate how much of a ‘foreigner’ I had become.

Be it China’s authoritarian political context or India’s chaotic democratic one, channelling one’s inner ostrich when it comes to air pollution is a universal affliction in developing Asian countries. To understand what from a rich-country perspective is the developing world’s peculiar obduracy in reacting to pollution, one must take into consideration the fact that many Beijingers and Delhiites will die prematurely or suffer long years of bad health regardless of air pollution. They must grapple with a long list of possible ills including typhoid, dengue, tuberculosis and malnutrition, before becoming overly concerned with the cardiovascular implications of exposure to toxic air.

Yet, greater awareness can, when the information is dire enough and perceived as such, eventually lead to change, a process that, by the time of the Olympics, had clearly begun in China. According to the UN Environment Programme, US$17 billion was spent on environmental projects between 2001 and 2008. By the time of the Olympics, 90 per cent of the city’s waste water was treated (compared to only about 40 per cent in Delhi at present). New roads, railway and metro lines had been built to encourage an alternative to cars. The number of public buses doubled to 20,000 between 1991 and 2007. Over 200 polluting industries (including cement, lime, brick and coke) were relocated outside the city and more than 16,000 small coal-fired boilers were converted to natural gas.

Arguably the most significant environmental legacy of the Games was an increase in the awareness of the terrible, pollution-related problems that China faced. The media attention garnered by air pollution made the dirty air visible to residents in a way that years of actually living with heavy particulate matter had not managed.

A cyclist from the US team arrives at Beijing airport ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The role of the foreign community in drawing attention to the health effects of air pollution was crucial in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

On a personal level, my relationship with pollution became more adversarial after my son was born, a month after the Games. First-time parenthood engendered a siege mentality in me.

I began to navigate the quotidian as though under attack, spotting enemy forces in the food we ate, in the water, in the milk and in the air.

As my boy approached six months of age, he began wheezing like a grandma on a mountaineering expedition. He was diagnosed with a lower respiratory disorder, bronchiolitis, that our paediatrician said was common in babies born in Beijing. Our nights became nightmarish as we stayed up watching over our child gasping even in his sleep.

A few months later we moved to Brussels, the Belgian capital, where my husband began a new job. Our son, now 8 years old, has never experienced any respiratory symptoms since.

The ability to up and move is a deep privilege. Those from that often-annoying demographic, the expatriate, have choices that most locals do not. They have resources, in terms of both information and money, that most locals do not. Most importantly, they have an exit. I well appreciated why expats moaning about pollution could feel so egregious to those for whom toxic air was not just a hardship posting, but life.

This divide between the ‘tourists’ and those serving a life sentence in the acrid megalopolises of the developing world is the unfair result of the throw of some cosmic dice. Yet the role of the foreign community in drawing attention to the health effects of air pollution, and in creating knowledge of the ways to mitigate pollution’s worst effects (through the use of air purifiers, masks, pollution-monitoring devices, etc), was crucial in Beijing, as it would be in Delhi later.

In 2014 I returned to China, visiting Beijing and Tianjin for a World Economic Forum summit. While the Westerners in our group had come prepared with face masks, the Indians kept squinting into the smog, perplexed. I was repeatedly approached by the Indian participants about whether ‘this’ – the air outside our conference centre – was what all the fuss was about.

‘But, this is nothing’

“But, this is nothing,” they would say in bewilderment. I giggled. It reminded me of my own reactions as a novice reporter in China. On field trips with Western colleagues into the country’s interior, everyone would be agitatedly reporting on the dire poverty, when all I could think on beholding the decently clothed, electric fan-owning ‘poor’ was, ‘This? But, this is nothing.’

Until very recently the China-oriented “airenfreude”, so common in Western media, was prevalent in India as well. But India has been choking even worse. According to Nasa satellite data, PM2.5 levels across India rose by 13 per cent between 2010 and 2015, while China’s fell by 17 per cent. Last year was the first time the average Indian was exposed to more particulate matter than the average Chinese. In 2014, a World Health Organisation study ranked Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. Neither Beijing nor any other Chinese city even figured in the top 20, but 13 Indian cities did.

Despite its international image as the poster boy for pollution, China has in fact emerged as the front runner among polluted Asian countries in tackling dirty air. It has instituted a regionally coordinated system of monitoring, installed hi-tech pollution abatement equipment on most of its power plants, and devised means to restrict car ownership in major cities.

China now has a network of 1,500 air quality-monitoring stations in over 900 cities and its coal use is down and coal-fired power plants are increasingly efficient. Beijing’s 12th five-year plan (2011-16) contained an unprecedented emphasis on environmental issues. In 2013, Beijing announced that total public and private investment in pollution abatement would amount to US$163 billion over the next five years. By 2017 all vehicles, across the nation, must comply with China’s fifth set of emissions standards, while renewables will make up a fifth of its overall energy consumption by 2025.

After years ignoring its own pollution problem, and years behind China, even India – or, more specifically, Delhi – is finally experiencing an airwakening of sorts. Helped by an activist judiciary, an increasingly aware and globally connected middle class, and a chief minister who himself suffers from respiratory disorders, Delhi’s annual average PM 2.5 levels have reduced by 20 per cent since 2014, according to 2016 WHO data. Emissions standards for cars have been strengthened and restrictions placed on the sale and registration of diesel vehicles.

With this winter’s emergency-level smog, pollution has finally burst onto the front pages like a new type of Diwali cracker. The city government responded with emergency measures. Citizen-led interest groups are pressing for longer-term change and ordinary people are asking aloud why their kids should have lungs akin to those of smokers. Pollution is finally taking its place among issues like corruption and the safety of women. When I visited Delhi earlier this year, I found even our neighbourhood paanwallah discussing ambient air. “It’s very bad, this pollution,” he complained.

But going by Beijing’s experience, there is one certainty for Delhi amid the raft of contingencies: as the effects of regulations can take decades to realise, the skies are going to get worse before they get better.