Cleaner air: Can we go back to ‘normal’?

CPCB’s evidence on nation-wide clean up during the lockdown implies that clean air action has to upscale to new normal

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Monday 06 April 2020
Photo: @Shravan71000821 / Twitter

As India remains in lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), has informed of a massive drop in air pollution, showing varied trends across Delhi, the National Capital Region (NCR) and other cities.

This is expected, as everything is shut and slow. But what must change when the economy bounces back after the pandemic?

CPCB has rightly attributed this decline to complete restrictions on non-essential vehicular movement and commercial activities and closure of industry and construction. Without traffic, re-suspension of road dust is also under control. 

This, therefore, has led to an overall drop of 35-40 per cent in particulate matter (PM) 10 and PM2.5 levels in Delhi; NOx levels have halved; industrial areas like Mundka and Narela and traffic areas of Dwarka and Pusa are substantially cleaner.

Air quality improvement in NCR towns, however, is comparatively less pronounced. But Gurugram, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Noida have recorded ‘Good’ Air Quality Index (AQI) levels around March 26-29, 2020. Weather has also favoured partially.

The Indo-Gangetic plain is significantly cleaner. Seventeen cities have moved to ‘Satisfactory’ AQI category and seven cities to ‘Good’ category. Change is not that dramatic in coastal cities.

Chennai even experienced a slight increase for local reasons. The industrial cities of Satna, Singrauli and Chandrapur have not witnessed any notable improvement. This snapshot of change is evident from CPCB’s comparison of the lockdown period (including Janata Curfew day) with the pre-lockdown phase.

While this change is an unintentional result of the public health emergency that has disrupted the economy and caused human distress, this experience is telling us something valuable. This unintended scale of the experiment has proven that the future cannot be business-as-usual.

Don’t fritter away lessons

It has now been possible for all to see how clean the air can get when changes are happening at a national scale. It earlier provoked disbelief. But this ‘aberrant’ situation that the CPCB analysis has captured, has helped to understand several critical dimensions.

The CPCB has stated that the regional influence on air quality is minimal at this moment. Local trends are more affected by the local pollution situation. Though background pollution remains a complex issue, cities can assess persistent local problems better to refine action plans.

This time, it has also been possible to scientifically estimate the relative contribution of different sources to the overall decline in pollution concentration. Based on the 2018 source apportionment study of The Energy and Resources Institute and Automotive Research Association of India, CPCB has estimated this change for Delhi.

Given the fact that in summers, dust and construction activities cause about 35 per cent of PM2.5 concentration, and transport and industry sectors 20 per cent each, their proportionate role is evident.

Industry’s contribution to the overall drop is about 10 per cent; transport's share is about 15 per cent; and dust contribution is about 10-15 per cent. Lower refuse burning, minimum activities in airport, etc have also contributed. This science can be strengthened further to inform action.  

No doubt, this reduction has been possible because of the forced shut down and this is not expected to last. This is an extraordinary emergency. But this experience also indicates that to sustain air quality gains in the longer run, future action plans will need higher level of ambition for large-scale sector-wise systemic changes.

People have breathed clean air, seen the change and understood what it takes. Will this translate into strong public and political support for hard and inconvenient solutions? We have seen how the perception of immediate health risks has led to massive lifestyle adjustment and the virtual workplace has reduced travel. How is deep restructuring possible for effective emissions reduction and near zero emissions strategies without sliding back?  

This will not be easy given our unique vulnerability — livelihood distress in our informal economy, with the weakest environmental safeguards. This sector will need state support for technology and clean fuel transition while delivering on welfare objectives.

The poor face a double burden — livelihood insecurity because of air pollution control and increased health burden due to toxic exposure. How will distributive welfare and justice be delivered?

Yet, valuable lessons from these extraordinary times are with us; when the ongoing national clean air programme has entered the phase of implementation, quarterly tracking of progress in city action plans has started, committed funding for air pollution control to the urban local bodies in cities with million population by the Finance Commission has come through, air pollution and health science is getting stronger, and courts are asking for accountability and fixing responsibility.

Can this be leveraged to control the expected upsurge in emissions from the post-pandemic economic revival?  

India cannot continue to face extended health emergency with even weaker lungs. The blue skies today are ephemeral and transient. But we cannot also return to what we know as normal and regular.

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