One of the greatest threats to human health is air pollution, with a recent International Energy Agency study showing it results in an estimated 6.5 million deaths annually.

The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago is working to identify approaches to lower the death toll in the world’s air pollution capitals. Through partnerships in Asia, researchers are finding new ways to strike a balance between urgently needed economic growth and improved air quality.

“Many of the greatest energy challenges today are not here in the U.S., but in places like India and China, where pollution is causing the billions of people living in these countries to lead sicker and shorter lives,” said Michael Greenstone, the institute’s director and the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics. “We made it one of our organizing missions at EPIC to make research in these vital countries a priority.”

The institute started by putting people on the ground in India, creating an EPIC-India office at the University of Chicago Center in Delhi on Greenstone’s first day as director in 2014. A key hire was Anant Sudarshan, executive director of EPIC-India, who came from Harvard University where he was a post-doctoral fellow after receiving his PhD at Stanford University.

While EPIC’s team is at work using research to identify cost-effective ways to reduce pollution in India, Greenstone and other UChicago faculty are focused on similar issues in China—laying the groundwork for a possible EPIC-China in the future.

All of the work has a clear objective: Provide government leaders with tools and information to ensure they are implementing the right policies for the health of their citizens and economy.

“Air pollution policy in India and China literally determines whether people live or die, both directly and through their influence on economic growth,” Greenstone said. “We are at the cusp of a golden era in energy research in which careful data analysis can expand understanding, drive successful policy change and improve people’s lives. Our mission is to make this a reality and soon.”

On the ground in India

EPIC’s researchers form collaborative partnerships with government and industry in India, often from the start of a research project, to ensure the right questions are being asked and solutions are politically realistic. Solutions are tested on the ground and rigorously measured.

“We’ve learned that having a permanent presence on the ground is essential to fostering the partnerships needed, gaining the trust of the community and conducting this type of cutting-edge research where we can field test potential solutions,” Sudarshan said. “The approach follows in the UChicago tradition of using data-driven inquiry to drive real impact.”

An early project conducted by Greenstone and his colleagues in the Indian state of Gujarat made changes to the auditing of industrial plants. Since auditors were hired by the plants they inspected, they were not reporting accurate pollution readings. The project removed these conflicts of interest by giving auditors incentives to tell the truth, such as randomly assigning them to industrial plants and having their work double-checked for accuracy. The changes reduced pollution by 28 percent and were adopted by the Gujarat government.

“Our partnership proves the success of innovative, evidence-based approaches to policymaking and is a model for how researchers and policymakers can make a big difference by working together,” said Hardik Shah, member secretary of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, the main government collaborator for the project.

The EPIC-India team has since studied a two-phase pilot program conducted by the Delhi government to reduce air pollution by allowing cars to run on city streets on alternate days depending on whether their license plate ended in even or odd numbers. Comparing pollution levels before, during and after the initial pilot phase, the researchers’ recommendations were able to influence how the government conducted the second phase. Ultimately, the researchers suggested a longer-run solution of a congestion-pricing system, which is one of the recommendations the government is now considering.

EPIC is also working with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Central Pollution Control Board, and the Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Boards to pilot India’s first-ever emissions trading program for particulate matter, the deadliest form of air pollution.

“Not only will this introduce India’s first trading program in general, but it would be the world’s first trading program specifically for particulates,” said Sudarshan. “We expect the program will drastically reduce air pollution at a low cost to both government and industry and provide best practices for replicating this regulatory model to other emissions.”

Looking to China

Greenstone has been conducting research in China for years now, including a study establishing a link between pollution and mortality. The paper looked at pollution and lifespans north and south of the Huai River, finding people in the more polluted north experience shorter lifespans.

Building on the work, Koichiro Ito, an assistant professor at the University’s Harris School of Public Policy, released a groundbreaking study earlier this year on how much Chinese people are willing to pay to remove pollution from the air they breathe. The answer: about $5.46 to remove one microgram per cubic meter of pollution, or $213 per person for five years.

Ito is now talking with China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and energy utility companies in China about a possible project to examine the effects of specific reform policies on natural gas and coal usage, air pollution, and ultimately, health and welfare.

“Having an estimate of people’s willingness to pay for clean air provides regulators with a solid number they can use to estimate the welfare impacts of the energy policies they are considering,” Ito said. “For lawmakers in places like China and India who are right now deliberating a whole suite of policies to clean up the air, while also balancing economic growth goals, this policy tool comes at a perfect time.”

The research in China has EPIC looking to become more involved there. Greenstone said the institute is in the early stages of planning an office in China so EPIC can start working more closely with policymakers on the ground.