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Air Pollution: If wishes were horses

While mitigating air pollution sounds like an ideal objective,in reality it has to be balanced against economic growth and other goals. — KK Srivastava


According to WHO around 7 million people die annually worldwide due to exposure to air pollution. Delhi alone had about 57,000 deaths due to air pollution last year. So with an aim to save people from the ill effects of air pollution who has released its revised air quality guidelines for six key pollutants, making them more stringent. But these new standards mean 90% of the global population and nearly 100% of population of Southeast Asia lives in areas that exceed the earlier (2005) WHO standards by 8 times; it will be an enormous 17 times higher than the new (2021) safe limits. The guidelines show that air pollutants are harmful at much lower levels than believed so far. The six kind of hazards include particulate matter (2.5, 10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. The new Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) provide an assessment of the health effects of air pollution, set new threshold for key air pollutants, and provide recommendations to improve air quality. Low and middle income countries have growing levels of air pollution because of multiple factors, including urbanization and economic development that relies on burning of fossil fuels. 

There is enough scientific evidence to show that air pollution is not just a health problem but also adversely impacts economic growth. A study published in the Lancet in 2020 suggested that Delhi suffered the highest per capita economic loss due to air pollution in 2019, losing 1.08% of state GDP. Overall deaths and disease due to air pollution was linked to a loss of 1.36% of India’s GDP.

The WHO air quality norms are based on science; national standards, while rooted in science, are political accommodations – an effort to balance competing needs. The efforts to improve air quality for example comes in direct conflict with some other objectives, such as the need to ensure that our industry remains competitive, costs are not prohibitive, consumers don’t have to pay excessively, etc. This is why air quality norms even in environmentally progressive countries fall short of WHO norms. Yet with conclusive links between poor air quality and human health and productivity, it is critical for governments to step up their efforts. These new benchmarks should be a wakeup call for policy makers in most parts of the world, including India. The new standards are not mandatory but policy makers would be well advised to not ignore it since people’s health is at risk from much lower levels of pollution than previously thought. The stringent yardsticks mean that almost all of India is a polluted zone for most of the year. In India excessive pollution is due to geographical and meteorological factors, besides vehicular and industrial emissions. But India’s quest for clean air has also suffered because pollution management here rarely goes beyond ad-hoc measures such as bans, fines, or shutting down of power stations. There is a lack of integrated approach. There is no combined input of environmental scientists public health professionals, urban planners, transport sector specialists, etc. to come out with a holistic approach to tackle the menace. In the absence of such concerted action, any program to arrest and rescue air pollution will be, well, just a lot of air. The govt. itself admits that only incremental steps have been taken so far. India’s National Clean Air Action Plan recognizes the dangers of poor air quality. But the effort on the ground to control the pollution is meagre, and the pace slow. In any case major changes, such as drastic reduction of the fossil fuel use, are critical but will take time.

So there is unlikely to be any dramatic improvement in India’s air quality, even if a concerted effort was initiated immediately. The quality of air is dependent on variety of activities and needs to be tackled at source. For example, one cannot expect clean air if the surroundings are filthy, or the quality of roads is not good. In India, for example, construction is a very unclean process. Indian roads don’t conform to basic norms that should reduce pollution; the roads release lots of harmful particles. Yet, there is no gainsaying the fact that these are low hanging fruits that can deliver appreciable benefits within a short period of time. Besides, several flagship govt. programs like Swachh Bharat, Namami Ganga, Ujjawala scheme, etc. have clean air as collateral benefit.

The pertinent question is whether AQGs, can be implemented, especially in challenging geo-climatic zones such as India. In comparison to AQGs, India’s threshold levels are many folds higher. Mumbai now exceeds the standards by 8 times, Kolkata 9.4 times and Chennai 5.4 times. Thus there is no denying that both Indian air quality standards and pollution mitigation measures need to be strengthened. That said, India needs to balance economic growth goal and pollution control objective. Briefly put, the WHO standards don’t seem feasible. 

The problem is that switching to a greener economy is expensive. In fact materials needed for building green power sources – lithium ion batteries and copper based green electrification - are themselves subject to environment regulations and are therefore costly to produce. The supply of green energy sources at mass scale is cost prohibitive. At the end of the day, fighting air pollution is a subset of climate change mitigation efforts. The rich world, which bears the greatest historical emission responsibilities, must transfer substantial technology and finance to the developing world. India on its part must focus on cleaning up its power, industry, and transport sectors, set up interim targets, and plan a more nuanced regional approach to clean the air. But while preaching’s are easy, practice is riddled with hurdles.

A global push to lower carbon emissions will hamper commodity production, pushing up prices for everything from natural gas to environment friendly materials. While environmental concerns are not new for companies that consume large amount of water and power and often contribute to local pollution, demand for materials like copper, aluminium, and lithium – a key component of the rechargeable batteries that power electric cars – is expected to surge even as environmental concerns (relating to their mining) limit their supply. For example, while some U.S. states want to increase domestic production of critical materials there is local opposition and lengthy permitting process. There are very few parts of the world that are free from environmental issues. There occur supply disruptions and project delays caused by environmental concerns all around. 

Not only that, a rapid transition to a green economy would cause many disruptions. For example many industries like coal fired plants, ICE automotives, and others would face a dim future. This will disrupt the employment market since green technologies are generally less labour intensive. For example, electric vehicles have fewer moving parts and so would need less labour. Since green goods, moreover, are more expensive price stability would be under threat; consequent inflation is not likely to be palatable to most governments in democracy. Finally, the govt. would lose lot of tax revenue, particularly in India, if demand for petroleum products declines. One is not sure if the govt. is in a position to bear these costs. Consequently the rapid movement towards mitigating adverse environmental effects would be adversely affected.

To sum-up, while the goal of cleaning up environment is laudable indeed, the govt. will have to make haste slowly since in short term politically, economically, and otherwise it will be only a wild goose chase.

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