Fight barriers to solutions to clean air

Need solution-driven agenda to build public and political will to overpower resistance from inconvenience of change

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Thursday 02 January 2020
Air pollution, Photo: Joyjeet Das

The 2020 crossover to the new decade is burdened with the legacy of dirty air and disease. But there is also excitement and hope for change. This paradox confronts the new decade.

Public health crisis is real and growing; but anger and outrage against killer air is empowering. We may still not know enough about the dimensions and magnitude of the crisis. But data and science have brought more clarity.

Our efforts to clean up are inadequate; but action so far builds optimism for change. 

We have pushed boundaries and learnt a lot this decade. Wherever we have seen change — however small or big it may be — in Delhi or in Beijing — it shows slow steps don’t go far.

Bending of the pollution curve needs disruption at a scale. Time is against us. Transformative changes are inconvenient and expensive, but less expensive than the health cost of slow action. Yet the transformation must be inclusive and not leave the poor behind. 

What has Delhi taught us?

Delhi, fighting one of the longest and toughest air pollution battles, has many lessons for us. Compared to other cities, Delhi has been more ambitious and yet falls short of meeting the clean air benchmark.

Change in Delhi is not small: It has shut all coal-based power plants, stopped dirty fuels — coal, pet coke, and furnace oil — expanded industrial use of natural gas, reduced diesel trucks and diesel cars, moved public transport and local commercial vehicles to compressed natural gas (CNG), removed old vehicles, brought in Bharat Stage (BS) VI fuels and a renewed fleet with BSIV vehicles, substantially reduced use of solid fuel in households, and pursued some localised hot spot action on waste. 

This change has been possible due to bottom-up pressure from public campaigns, judicial strictures, media glare, and executive action. The result is evident in the stabilisation and an indicative drop of about a quarter in annual particulate matter (PM) 2.5 trend over the decade and increased the number of clean air days. But imagine the scale of change still needed for even deeper cut of over 65 per cent to meet the national ambient air quality standard? 

Delhi is struggling hard to curb emissions from explosive motorisation, fugitive emissions from small-scale and illegal industrial units, subversive use of dirty fuels, burning of municipal and industrial waste, dust blowing from construction and roads, episodic emissions from crop fire and pollution from outside.

Delhi cannot also do this alone if the multi-sector action is not scaled up uniformly across the national capital region and the Indo-Gangetic Plain with discipline and accountability. 

Even bigger lesson from Delhi is the time lost in court battles and in fighting pushback and resistance to nearly all its decisions and solutions implemented so far. This has delayed deeper and more uniform multi-pronged action.

Even though awareness regarding killer air has grown, solutions have often not found timely and visibly strong public support to counter opposition when it happened. This has to change.

What has Beijing taught us? 

This conversation is incomplete without Beijing — the poster boy of clean-up efforts. The biggest global story is the deep bend in the particulate curve of Beijing. Its target to cut particulate pollution by 25 per cent between 2012 and 2017 finally led to a more than 35 per cent drop.

Science-based air quality management combined with disciplined enforcement, vertical accountability, and sectoral targets spurred this change.

The authorities there were smart enough to take a regional approach from the beginning — covering seven provinces, including 73 cities, with an integrated plan, uniform standards, compliance mechanism, accountability and an extensive subsidy programme to facilitate change.

The key learning is their astounding scale and swiftness of change. Within five years, China strengthened industrial emission standards, phased out small and polluting factories and outdated industrial capacities, upgraded industrial boilers, promoted clean fuels in residential sector and strengthened vehicle emission standards. 

As evident from a PNAS article of 2019, close to 99 per cent of coal-fired power plants adopted sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) controls and 71 per cent met ultra-low emissions standards.

About 88 per cent of iron and steel plants installed desulphurisation units and 92 per cent of cement plants installed denitrification devices. While 25 gigawatt capacity of coal-based power generation were phased out, iron and steel and cement plants eliminated production capacity totalling 200 million tonnes and 250 million tonnes respectively. 62,000 small polluting units were closed.

As emissions standards for industrial boilers were tightened, about 200,000 boilers were eliminated. Residential coal use was substituted by natural gas and electricity in 6 million households. China 4 and 5 emissions standards for cars were advanced while 20 million old vehicles were scrapped. Beijing and Shanghai capped car sales. 

Are we prepared for such a scale of disruption? 

India has transformed policies; need change on the ground 

A spate of new-generation policies have set new principles for change. Initially, Delhi’s wins catalysed nation-wide improvement in emissions standards for vehicles, new SOx and NOx standards for industry, controls on pet coke use and import and expansion of CNG programme in other cities.

India notably leapfrogged directly from BSIV to BSVI emissions standards with real world emissions regulations.

More nation-wide regulations have followed that require new-generation governance framework. Rules on waste management (municipal solid waste, construction and demolition waste, plastic and biodegradable waste) have asked for decentralised waste management, extended producer’s responsibility and consumer charges.

Reform-based public transport funding, smart city programme, transit oriented development policy have asked for compact and accessible urban form and people-centric mobility.

The Ujjwala scheme has operationalised clean cooking energy access for poorer households. FAME II incentivises trend towards zero emissions. Tighter standards for power plants and renewable energy portfolio have created opportunities.

But these have come without roadmap and enablers for time-bound state-level implementation. 

Therefore, the newly framed National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), the first step towards cohesive national air quality management, seeking a 20-30 per cent cut in particulate concentration by 2024 from 2017 level, will have to tie these up for real change on the ground. 

What must change to address big gaps? 

How do we move from policy to compliance? The stance of NCAP to seek only collaborative, multi-scale and cross-sectoral coordination between ministries, state governments and local bodies, cannot deliver without strong framework for compliance, monitoring and accountability. 

Combine this with effective civil penalty, deterrence and incentives. Otherwise, the current economic slowdown and obsession with “ease of doing business” will subvert industrial environmental governance.

A review of state pollution control boards by the Comptroller and Auditor General has shown what weakens governance despite strong laws: Failure to take action against polluting industrial units; lack of database on pollution sources and pollution load in the state; poor monitoring of validity period of consent and operation; consent for establishment and operations granted to highly polluting industries without mandatory inspections; subversion of environmental clearance; weak auditing and inspection weaken the system. 

As science has shown NCAP must go beyond tiny towns and cities to adopt a regional strategy and village-level action to combine jurisdictions for integrated planning and compliance.

Federal action has to go beyond the common minimum

Within the federal system, not just Delhi but several other cities are walking the extra mile. Acknowledge this and to ask for more.

Kolkata, for instance, has made emissions standards for industrial boilers eight times tighter than national standards and incentivised switch from coal to oil and gas; distributed free LPG connection to open eateries; operates the largest electric bus fleet and is the only one to implement remote sensing for on-road emissions monitoring.

Patna, Bhiwadi, Alwar have improved brick kilns and fuels. Bhubaneswar, Navi Mumbai, Chennai, Surat, Amritsar, Mysore, Bengaluru and Delhi are transforming bus transport with information technology-based passenger information system, implementing complete street design and pedestrian only streets, promoting multi-modal integration, and framing parking restraint measure. 

But new-generation measures for clean energy transition, smart monitoring of industry, transit-oriented compact urban form to reduce distances and pollution, paratransit and walk based reforms in smaller towns, and zero emissions mandate for electric mobility among others need deeper public awareness to build support.

Build excitement for change 

Cynicism should not belittle action — however small it may be. Acknowledge action of any magnitude in any sector and any region to drive public and political imagination to build those solutions to scale. Draw public attention to solutions to stoke public and political conversation and political will to overpower resistance from inconvenience of change. 

New-generation solutions are more complex in design, technology and pricing. They cannot happen without public understanding and support.

A transition to gas and electricity is possible only if cleaner fuels are more competitive. Cheap coal is out-pricing natural gas, burdened with heavy state taxes. Mobility strategies including integrated public transport systems and car restraint measures have been slowest to improve due to push-back from lifestyle pressures.

New era solutions to waste burning will have to be local and in our backyard. We need neigbourhood scale collection, segregation, composting and recycling facilities and zero landfill approach. 

Small and fragmented action so far has to gather speed and scale. Understand the significance and excitement of street celebrations in the newly pedestrianised streets of Ajmal Khan in Delhi to build hope for urban renewal. 

Make change happen

There is bad news (growing air pollution, deaths and illness); and there is good news (emerging good practices).

But good news can increase only if change rides on empowered multi-sector institutions, data and science driven planning, the effective use of existing and reformed laws for compliance; institutional capacity for enforcement, fiscal measures to tax the bad and fund the good and informed public opinion.

Stage is set for change. Drive solutions to scale. Celebrate action for clean air and health. There is no other way to the new decade. 

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