Last few weeks were very important for all those interested in environmental issues: governments, corporations, and individuals particularly the young. The declarations and commitments made on Climate Change actions at COP26 summit in Glasgow reverberated around the world.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed India to the goal of becoming “Net Zero” by 2070. He recited “Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina- the Devine mantra of Peace for All” and proposed a Global Movement “Life Style for Environment”. His speech was exciting, visionary and farsighted.
But in contrast, living in Delhi, it was hard to be far sighted. In fact, visibility was severely limited due to heavy, noxious, winter smog particularly on the day after Diwali. This was caused by heavy Air Pollution accentuated by Farm Fires and Diwali crackers. The PM2.5 reading was at maximum 999 on measuring instruments which have 3 digit display. This means that actual level could be 1,100 or more. Some actions were taken by the government but not enough to result significant improvement .In comparison, the same day Beijing had PM2.5 of 188, but the government there declared environment emergency closing all schools, offices and limited vehicular traffic. The Supreme Court of India also has taken an active interest, pushing government to take action, but with limited success. The courts actions included ordering two giant air cleaning towers in New Delhi, which many experts believe are useless in addressing the basic problem of Air Pollution and contribute to Climate Change as they are heavy user of electricity which is mostly coal based power.
India has some of most polluted cities in the world, resulting in severe negative health impact on our citizens, particularly the poor, elders and children. How do reconcile our commitment reduce Climate Change for the benefit of future generations of our citizens and others in the world with our failure to protect the health of our present generation.
Air pollution has also resulted deep inequality, the rich and powerful live in homes full of air purifiers, travel in cars fitted with air purifiers and work in offices with Air Purifiers. These Air Purifiers run on electric power, which is mostly from coal based plants which cause Air pollution as well as emit Greenhouse gases resulting in Climate Change. While the poor citizens are breathing highly polluted air of PM 2.5 of 999 or more the rich and powerful live a bubble of clean air.
It is worth remembering Mahatma Gandhi’s advice” The Earth has enough resources for our need but not for our greed”. It is the basic premise of Prime Minister Modi’s advice at Glasgow summit, that all of us in the world, particularly in India, should modify our “LIFE style for Environment”.
One fundamental question relevant for India remains - how do we reconcile our Climate Change commitment to the World of Net Zero- 2070 with the urgent need to protect our citizens health from devastating Air Pollution in our cities.
Fortunately, there is no contradiction: most of the actions of Decarbonization, necessary to reduce air pollution also result in reducing GHG, called Co-Benefits in economics parlance. For example increasing renewable power and reducing coal based power plants will reduce Air Pollution and also reduce CO2 emissions, Similarly a number of other actions result in similar co benefits such as a)Increasing Electric Vehicles, 2 wheelers, 3 wheelers, cars, small Commercial Vehicles, and buses, b) reducing industrial emissions, c) increasing energy efficiency ( GDP per unit of energy consumed ), d) using induction heaters for home cooking instead of coal, wood or gas, e) reducing coal, petrol and diesel consumption , f) tree plantation and increasing forest cover, g) crop rotation to reduce paddy cultivation (and stubble burning ) in north India, h) ban on Diwali crackers, i) emission reduction from diesel power generators, j) promoting public transportation, k) making cities more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, etc. But the most important action for reducing air pollution and Green House Gas emissions is “Carbon Tax” which is necessary for meeting our Net Zero-2070 commitment.
As the first step, need to establish Goals for Air Quality improvement at National, State and City levels. At National level we should we should set a Goal of reaching average annual PM2.5 level of 5 Microgram per cubic meter, (the new WHO standards) by 2040 from current level of around 90. There should be interim Goals at national level for 2025, 2030 and 2035. Similarly each state and City should set up their interim goals (based on their present level of Air Pollution) to finally meet the National Goal of average annual PM2.5 of WHO standard of 5 microgram per cubic meter by 2040. The progress on achieving these goals at City, state and National level, should be monitored, independently audited and widely reported.
To succeed in this mission of air quality Improvement and climate change we need to have leadership by a National Leader of very high stature, commitment to this cause, and proven competence to lead and coordinate these efforts among various ministries at the central government, with state and city governments. A John Kerry for India. He should be appointed for a 10 year term and given enough power and authority to succeed in this mission. Fortunately we have had excellent experience of having such Leaders succeed in issues of national importance such as Mr Sreedharan, and Mr. Nandan Nilankani.
The Leader will need to have support of the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, State Chief Ministers and City Administrations to effectively execute this very challenging mission.
The Central Government, State Governments, and City Governments will need to allocate funds required for various actions required to meet the Goals. Some of these could be self-funded: for example, a tax on petrol and diesel and on IC engine vehicles could fund the support required for EVs including for charging stations, battery swapping stations, etc. Similarly a tax on coal based power plants could subsidies renewable energy. A Carbon Tax will result in improving energy efficiency across industries and businesses.
The author is the founder of CERCA, Centre for Clean Air focused on Air Pollution and Climate Change issues at IIT Delhi.