World Environment Day 2020: Infosys Prize winner Prof SK Satheesh explains changes during COVID-19 lockdown

The entire world witnessed several environmental changes, like rivers becoming cleaner and animals resurfacing at their old habitats during the coronavirus lockdown.

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Prof SK Satheesh also proposed his solution to the problem of poor air quality.

World Environment Day 2020: Year after year, India has seen that the air quality in a lot of metropolitan cities is deteriorating at a rapid rate, with Delhi and Mumbai often featuring among the most polluted cities in the world. This has been a major cause of concern among the authorities, the activists as well as the people. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, the world also saw a ray of hope of environmental healing when the news of the closing of a huge hole in the Ozone layer over the Arctic surfaced. It was being touted by people as the nature healing itself due to non-interference of humans. But then, a cyclone struck Mumbai after nearly 130 years, and the dramatically different incidents have left people confused over whether nature is healing or not.

In an exclusive interview with Financial Express Online, Professor SK Satheesh from Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and an Infosys Prize winner, answered this question. He said, “Incidentally, both these events happened during lock-down period. But both these events are not related to lock-down. The closing of the ozone hole has nothing to do with the reduced emissions during the lock-down. This happened because of the unusual atmospheric conditions associated with polar vortex, which bring cold air to polar regions.”

About Cyclone Nisarga making a landfall in Mumbai, the professor said, “A cyclone hitting Mumbai was not unexpected. It is true that Mumbai has not faced a cyclone in recent past. This is because of the weather dynamics of the Arabian Sea. On average, the Arabian Sea witnesses one or two cyclones every year which is fewer in number compared to those in the Bay of Bengal. Cyclones formed over the Arabian Sea tend to move westward towards Yemen and Somalia. However, the impact of hurricane Sandy that hit New York City warned us about the prospect of such an event taking place in Mumbai. Because, most of the cyclones that form in the Atlantic Ocean move north and later eastward and hence do not hit New York City. The hurricane Sandy was an exception and hit northeast United States on 29 October 2012 and became one of the most destructive storms in history.”

“Similarly, most of the cyclones in the Arabian Sea move westward and hence their chance of hitting Mumbai is usually considered low. There is no record of a cyclone landfall near Mumbai during the past 130 years. We should remember that two of the cyclones in the Arabian Sea turned eastward and hit the coast of Gujarat, a few degrees north of Mumbai and hence we believed that chances of a cyclone hitting the city of Mumbai cannot be ruled out. Thus, such events are due to climate change, evolving over time, and not because of any short-term effects,” he added.

But the healing of ozone was not the only incident we witnessed during the coronavirus lockdown. The entire world also witnessed several environmental changes, like rivers becoming cleaner and animals resurfacing at their old habitats. Were those also by chance? Professor Satheesh does not think so.

He said, “The lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in improved air quality and water quality in rivers and lakes. The lockdown experience demonstrated that nature heals itself in a short period.“

However, now that the lockdown is lifting, things are getting more worrisome. He added, “It has been reported that after partial lifting of the lockdown itself, some of these positive effects started disappearing. Since we cannot continue the lockdown for longer periods, we do not have the option to leave nature to heal itself.”

The lockdown, while having a positive result on the environment, has damaged the economies around the world. And so, we are again faced with the question of balancing out the economic activities with preservation of nature. This is also the agenda for the World Economic Forum 2021, which highlights the importance of taking steps in this direction.

Putting forth his suggestions, Professor Satheesh said, “It is true that the dramatic economic slowdown since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in some positive environmental outcomes. But it has come at a great cost in terms of human lives and jobs lost. In my opinion, reducing economic growth is not the pathway to achieve climate goals. In India, we still have large numbers of people below the poverty line, continued economic growth and development are critical. Moreover, India has the constraints of democracy. Climate goals have to be achieved by sustainable growth and conscious mitigation efforts such as energy decarbonization, reforestation, improved and well-planned land use and so on, besides adequate planning for climate adaptation. It is possible to create better models for sustainable development that balances profit and biodiversity by assigning appropriate monetary value for the ecosystem and the services they provide for the economy.”

However, the cause of worry does not end there. If things go back to normal, the air quality might also deteriorate again. The national capital of Delhi, while having a green cover of 21.9%, which is above the 20% threshold set by the authorities, still counts among the most polluted cities.

Professor Satheesh, however, said that green cover directly has no impact on air pollution. “Air quality degradation is an issue of major concern in India. This is mainly attributed to increase in population density, rapid economic growth, unplanned urbanization and industrial growth. Green cover has no direct relation to air pollution, which is caused due to anthropogenic activities. The pollution levels in Delhi have been increasing. Dust-generating construction sites, industrial emissions as well as a dominance of coal-fired power plants all contribute to the air quality degradation. The number of vehicles running on diesel has increased. All these contributed to increased levels of air pollution in Delhi,” he said.

Another major cause of air pollution in Delhi, as per experts, is the mass stubble burning, especially in Punjab and Haryana. Professor Satheesh, who has studied the impact of soot from domestic burning, cooking and transport, explained the impact of stubble burning in India.

“Crop-residue burning over regions west of Delhi, i.e, Punjab and Haryana significantly impacts Air Quality in the Ganges Valley including Delhi. Every year during winter, farmers in the states of Punjab and Haryana burn the crop residue left from rice harvesting in order to clear and prepare land for the next crop. The results are adverse in terms of the particulate pollutants as well as gaseous pollutants emitted by these fires. Atmospheric temperature inversion, which prevents vertical movement of air, during winter compliments this situation. In the absence of vertical dilution, air pollution near-surface will become more serious,” he explained.

In a nutshell, he said, the problem of air pollution in Delhi is a combined effect of stubble burning over regions west of Delhi, local pollution from industries/vehicular emissions and peculiar atmospheric conditions during winter. “Adding to the complexity, the presence of Himalayas and highlands on the other side prevents dilution of pollutants,” he added.

Speaking about the impact of stubble burning in the remaining parts of India, the professor said, “Stubble burning is not the major cause of air pollution in other regions. Over the Indian subcontinent, fossil fuel burning emissions are dominant, especially in cities. These emissions are mainly from vehicles. The number of registered motor vehicles in the country was just 2 million in 1970, increased to 12 million in 1990, 65 million in 2005, 115 million in 2010 and more than 200 million at present. This exponential increase in the number of vehicles (a major fraction using diesel) is the reason for air quality degradation in Indian cities. In rural areas, stubble burning is the dominant source.”

Proposing his solution to the problem of poor air quality, he said, “Transition to electric vehicles is the best option to reduce air quality degradation from vehicular emissions. In order to encourage more people to use electric vehicles, we need more charging stations. The COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent reduction of oil prices, poses a challenge for the transition to electric vehicles.”

But it is not as easy as it seems. India is a vast country, where different parts of the country experience different environmental challenges due to geographical diversity. This means that the challenges faced by these states at the micro level vary, and it makes a macro-level environmental policy that much more difficult. But an environmental policy is the need of the hour and a solution to these problems is imperative.

Professor Satheesh also stated that the consequences of climate change vary from region to region. “India assumes special significance due to the diverse geographical features, high population density, rapid urbanization and industrialization and resulting highly complex climate system. This region is also characterised as most heterogeneous with complex terrains. The impact depends on various factors including geographic and socio-economic conditions,” he said.

Further explaining, he said, “Research on climate change provides a scientific basis for governments at all levels to develop climate related policies. For example, the low-carbon transition has environmental ‘co-benefits’, which include improvement in air quality, biodiversity conservation and supporting the preservation of forests. A recent study at our centre has demonstrated that decarbonization of Indian power sector could significantly reduce emissions and health risks, but pollution control could be far more effective. It is equally important that scientific research on climate science also pay attention to local and regional problems and sensitize policymakers at the national, state and district levels about the consequences of projected impacts. This would help policy makers at all levels in their long-term planning. This calls for supporting targeted climate research relevant to specific regions and the outcome should be solution-oriented. When scientific research addresses problems at a disaggregated level, chances are better to engage with a broad spectrum of policymakers.”

While experts can guide the government in forming the policy, sensitisation and awareness among the masses is also important. People are now being informed about the need for preserving the environment, but the true result would only be seen once this has been made a second nature to humans. For that, it is important that children, from a young age, are taught about this.

“The main problem here is the fact that our students are not aware about the environment until they reach master’s degree courses. This would require educational policy reforms, which would take time to implement. Therefore, it is important to initiate awareness programmes among students from high school itself. Such programmes can include a series of lectures on climate change and the environment including related topical issues such as air quality and health issues, various issues related to the environment and demonstration of methods for the measurement of climate-relevant atmospheric properties. Maybe also activities like climate science quiz contests to make it interesting while also checking their grasp on the concept. While there are a number of books available, most of them are meant for bachelors or master’s degree students,” he said.

A holistic approach towards climate conservation and environmental preservation is what is needed at this point, in which all the stakeholders, including the government, the industries and the people would have to work together to reverse the negative impact of human activities. For that, it is important that scientific research in this regard is given due importance and the upcoming generation is taught from the beginning the need to keep the environment clean and safe.

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