Air pollution has emerged as a critical issue for many Indian cities in the recent years. Increasing vehicular emissions, growing industrial activities, expanding cities, rampant building and construction activities have all played their bits in contributing to air pollution. As the air increasingly turning lethal and making cities unlivable, policy initiatives to address this challenge deserve paramount attention.
Though there is no silver bullet to resolve the air pollution riddle, climate mitigation policies can offer notable co-benefits in this regard. Co-benefits, as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are the non-climate benefits of GHG mitigation policies that can be integrated at the inception stage of policy initiatives.
The national capital territory of India, Delhi, which is a home to several government establishments and over 27 million people, Air Quality Index (AQI) levels surged multiple times beyond the stipulated 'hazardous levels' in recent weeks. While AQI measurement beyond 150 is considered as unhealthy for all, it reportedly crossed 1,000 in the first half of November, forcing many schools and business establishments to temporarily shut down operations. Again in mid-December, the pollution level touched beyond the 400 mark, raising alarm on health concerns among the public.
The fluctuation in air pollution in New Delhi city also reflects the vehicular traffic. However, the local authorities find it convenient to blame only the agricultural residue burnings in adjacent states. This is evident from the frequent dip in air pollution to tolerable levels in immediate following days of the weekend in contradiction to the surge in pollution levels in midweek.
As the city turning into a gas chamber, every individual is becoming vulnerable to extreme health hazards. In the month of September, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had proposed a National Action Plan for Climate Change and Human Health (NAPCCHH) to address climate change related health impacts. While the action plan highlights air pollution as a critical issue, the need of the hour is to incorporate a time-bound strategy for abatement in the existing climate mitigation initiatives in the country.
Air pollution is not a standalone issue but has strong linkages to energy, environment and climate challenges the country face. While India's Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) specify that the country strives to achieve 33 to 35 percent of the reduction in emission intensity of its GDP by 2030 from 2005 levels, a series of initiatives have been framed by the government at the national as well as international levels. These are aimed at addressing a wide range of issues related to energy supply, demand, energy saving, waste management, forestry, etc. However, these actions across sectors remain largely compartmentalised initiatives rather than organic policy linkages.
For instance, the surging emission levels are unavoidable by-products of increasing fossil fuel demand and (decoupling efforts are far slower than needed), despite the growing non-fossil fuel energy generation. By the year 2040, India will be the largest contributor to global demand growth. If the current share of fossil fuels in the energy mix and electricity generation continue, air pollution will be much worse in the years ahead. While the need to reduce dependency on fossil-fuel-based electricity generation is often discussed at policy levels, coal continues to be the mainstay in India's primary energy mix with over 50 percent of the total commercially traded fuels. Even with substantial growth witnessed in the renewable sector, fossil fuel based thermal power generation has a share of 66% of total electricity generation in the country. Energy-related emissions are major components in the GHG emissions, and it contributes to the air pollution levels.
The transportation sector too presents a similar story. The sector depends heavily on petrol, diesel and natural gas, with a negligibly low share of cleaner fuels. According to the census of India 2011, about 37 percent of the urban population and 47 percentage of the urban population do not own any of the modes of transportation including a bicycle. Interestingly in rural India, which still has about 70 percent of country's population, a substantial share of mobility needs are met by walking or cycling while motorised transportation is largely unavailable. This is the vulnerable part. As economic activities are increasing and the transportation needs and vehicle ownership in urban as well as rural areas growing, the immediate solution can only be offered by conventional motorised modes which would add more pollution. Since Electric vehicles or Hybrid vehicles are yet to make any notable foray into the urban or the rural transportation sector, eliminating air pollution from cities may remain a distant dream without significant change in fuel consumption pattern. The lack of adequate quality of vehicular fuels available and the challenges in ensuring strict compliance with emissions standards and norms add to the concerns further.
Another issue that came to limelight as a major source of air pollution in north Indian cities is the smoke emanating from stubble burning in agricultural fields. As an easy and cheaper way to get rid of post-harvest straw and as a faster way to prepare the fields for next crop, farmers have been resorting to the burning of farm waste as a practice since the time green revolution picked up. However, there have been varying views on the degree of its contribution to city's air pollution vows. While some observers point that the states adjacent to Delhi are responsible for failing to stop stubble burning in their respective regions, widespread discontent was also seen about Delhi's own long-standing issues of traffic congestion, rampant construction activities and industrial emissions being swept under carpet amidst the blame game.
Despite the recurring surge in air pollution over the past few years, lack of awareness of the severity of health impacts makes the issue less prominent in public debates. As smog being an indicator to many, a less smoggy day is a relief whether or not the pollution levels are high. The issue reappears in the months preceding the winter and dies away despite the air quality index continuing to read much worse than healthy limits. It is surprising to note that despite India's commendable commitment towards climate mitigation and the government's strong interests to link it with the philosophical and cultural DNA of the country that revere and protect the environment, air pollution is increasing across cities.
As a co-benefit approach, the government attention needs to focus explicitly on the incorporating the elements of air pollution abatement into the existing GHG emission reduction and climate mitigation policies. This is required both at national as well as sub-national level climate action plans. A mission-mode timeline is needed to address air pollution abatement, without which the deteriorating ambient air quality may turn the cities non-liveable.
(The author specialises in energy and climate policy. He can be reached at: