How to clean up India’s toxic air: 3 out of box ideas to look for

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What distress can Air-Pollution cause or the harm it can do to the humans? The persistent and harsh question raises its head today more than it has done ever. Time has never been better than today to ponder over the possible solutions for having cleaner air without derailing the efforts for progressive economic growth of India.

As we humans are always able to come out with solution for the time being, for any problem addressing our life-style, our approach has become lackadaisical towards our planet and its various resources. But this time the menace caused by the persisting air-pollution is huge. Whether we will be able to cope up with this enduring breadth-choking situation, is a question demanding a little more pondering today.

The air pollution is on rise in India and taking more cities in its grip by each passing day thus enabling its cities to be ranked as one among the worst polluted cities of world alongside other countries of South-east Asia such as China and South Korea. Latest data, study and reports are revealing that one out of every eight deaths in India in 2017 was caused by air pollution. That’s almost twice as many deaths caused by cancer. This is a grim warning to India’s policymakers.

As air pollution has become a year-round health emergency across India, studies show that National Capital Delhi experienced only two ‘good’ air days over two years, between May 2015 and October 2017. Moreover, the WHO’s air quality database (as of 2018) showed that all 126 Indian cities exceeded the recommended guidelines for particulate emissions. The recent National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) targets a 20%-30% reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 emissions but doesn’t offer any concrete solutions or adequate funding (only Rs 300 crore) to achieve it. The NCAP will certainly strengthen air pollution monitoring across India – but doesn’t represent the kind of innovation needed to tackle the major sources of pollution. Here are three ideas.

Despite numerous warnings from scientists and much public criticism, policymakers have been unable to implement any comprehensive solutions to tackle air pollution. Even the recent National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) targets a 20%-30% reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 emissions but doesn’t offer any concrete solutions or adequate funding (only Rs 300 crore) to achieve it. The NCAP will certainly strengthen air pollution monitoring across India – but doesn’t represent the kind of innovation needed to tackle the major sources of pollution. Here are three possible ideas.

1: Introduce a federal cap and trade scheme for industrial pollutants

Air pollution requires a federal solution because state-level regulation can’t deal with the problem’s transboundary impact. A national cap-and-trade scheme for industrial pollutants could be effective in curbing industrial emissions. The idea is to set a cap on the total industrial emissions at the national level, and lower the permitted target over time. This would create a market for pollutants and encourage companies to invest in abatement technologies to avoid paying stringent penalties.

Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat trialled a pilot emissions-trading scheme in 2011. It used a comprehensive emissions management system to provide real-time information on industrial emissions to the government. This experience should enable environment regulators to implement a cap-and-trade programme in industrial clusters around the country. It could help deal with the problem without damaging economic competitiveness.

2: Incentivise a shift in cropping patterns among farmers in North India

Image Credit: Reuters

Crop burning has resisted technical solutions pushed by the administration. The government wanted to give farmers in Punjab and Haryana “happy seeders” at a subsidised cost. The seeders allow farmers to plant seeds without having to clear older paddy fields. However, farmers deemed the technology too expensive and the plan failed. It also doesn’t address the root-cause of paddy burning. In this context, instead of exploring silver-bullet solutions like the ‘happy seeder’, the government should incentivise crop diversification.  Restricting paddy cultivation in North India could also protect soil fertility and curb groundwater depletion.

3: Offer citizens incentives to trade ‘dirtier’ vehicles for cleaner ones

The Centre has decided to implement the BS VI fuel norms from 2020 to curb automotive emissions (we’re currently at BS IV). Although this is admirable, it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on transport emissions in the coming decade, chiefly because consumers have little incentive to shift to cleaner but more expensive vehicles.

2016 study in the US demonstrated that tightening the fuel economy helped increase the average vehicle lifetime by over three years. The study’s authors also found that consumers responded strongly to scrappage if they were guided by vehicle price, and they retained their vehicles for longer.

Image credit: Reuters

The takeaway for India is that the BS VI fuel standards could result in older, more polluting cars plying India’s roads for another decade. Implementing a scrappage programme with incentives to trade older vehicles in for newer, cleaner ones could curb automotive emissions much sooner.

Many policymakers believe that air pollution is the price Indians have to pay for economic development. That doesn’t have to be the case. Market-based solutions instead of command-and-control regulation could allow economic growth to coexist with cleaner air. As the World Bank projects India as the fastest growing economy of the world, India cannot afford to take for granted, both its economic growth and well-being of its population.

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