The air quality index in Beijing is, to put it mildly, off the charts. On Tuesday, a reading of 517 prompted U.S. Embassy officials to proclaim it “beyond index.” Earlier, in a since-deleted tweet, they called it “crazy bad.” Says Green Car Reports, “recent pollution figures in Chinese capital Beijing have made 1970s Los Angeles look like a crisp day in the Rocky Mountains.”

India actually has far worse air, so bad that on my last visit I had a continual sore throat. But India is quiet about it; in China, they’re finally taking action. Beijing has 5.18 million cars, up from 3.13 million as recently as 2008. And the government is planning to take 180,000 of the worst polluters off the road. A bunch of government vehicles were ordered off the road, too. And some 44,000 homes are also to lose their coal-fired heaters. Being China, it’s probably going to just order those 180k cars scrapped, as opposed to making nice with “Cash for Clunkers” programs. Beijing's aim is a 2 percent drop in air pollution this year.

Older cars can be “gross polluters,” emitting disproportionately more smog-forming chemicals and greenhouse gas than most of the rest of the vehicles on the road. So this step will help, but isn’t going to get Beijing to what Mayor Wang Anshun referred to as “blue skies, clean water, less traffic and a more balanced education system.” Not sure how that last one relates, but the city is ringed by coal-burning smokestack industries and gridlocked with poorly regulated cars.

As the New York Times reports, China uses 47 percent of the world’s coal — nearly equal to the rest of the world combined. Unfortunately, China has huge coal reserves, and it’s going to use them. An encouraging sign is that Beijing residents overwhelmingly say they want a tough Clean Air Act that would probably filter some of that coal burning.

At least China appears to be aware that it has an air pollution problem. When I was in New Delhi and Mumbai in 1999, people were calling it “fog,” as if we were in Sherlock Holmes’ London. (That was coal, too.) The press seemed blithely unaware of environmental issues. An editorial suggested that the country’s disappearing species could be repopulated through cloning. That's New Delhi at dawn above.

Yet New Delhi is worse off than Beijing in some measures. Its level of PM 2.5 particulate matter (which can lodge in the lungs and cause cancer) was more than 400 micrograms per cubic meter recently, compared to 172 micrograms in Beijing. “Air pollution levels [in New Delhi] far exceeded those in Beijing, only without any government acknowledgement or action,” the New York Times’ India blog noted.

Time reported on a Yale and Columbia study released in 2012 that ranked India last out of 132 countries in air quality (and its effects on human health). Tel Aviv University reported that megacities (with more than 10 million in population) are seeing faster pollution increases than in China. From 2002 to 2010, Bangalore enjoyed the second-highest increase in air pollution levels in the world — 34 percent. Also rising fast were Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and Ahmedabad (double-digit increases).

Yes, China’s crazy bad, but India is worse, and the mayor of New Delhi isn’t not taking the gross polluters off the street.

Related story on MNN: Beijing faces life-threatening air pollution levels

MNN tease photo: Feng Li/Getty Images

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Choking Beijing takes cars off the street
Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun is launching a war on air pollution, aiming at 2 percent improvement this year.