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AQI a priority too

As India assumes G-20 presidency, its impressive growth rate must be accompanied by breathable air in its cities

AQI a priority too
But there is no escape from the current situation under a business-as-usual scenario.

By Ashok Gulati & Purvi Thangaraj

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The timing seems perfect for India as it takes over the Group of Twenty (G-20) presidency. When chips are down for the US, Europe, and even China, on the growth front, India is a shining star with the highest rate of GDP growth expected in 2023—surpassing China in 2022 as well as 2023. Inflation is also not out of control; though a little higher than RBI’s tolerance band, it is surely much better than in the US, the EU, and the UK. This is the right moment for India to showcase its economic strategy, along with its culture and the motto of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’: ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) could add further to its shine.

But, there is one blot that India needs to erase as soon as possible. And that is pollution in its cities. One wonders what the heads of G-20 nations would think while coming to Delhi when Delhi is branded as the most polluted city in the world! Residents of Delhi are choking with every breath. The Air Quality Index (AQI) of Delhi vis-a-vis capitals of other G-20 nations is the poorest by a wide margin (see graphic).

Delhiites, in November-December, feel as if they are being pushed into a gas chamber for slow death. The Air Quality Life Index Report (2022) of the University of Chicago claims that residents of Delhi are losing their life expectancy by as much as 10 years! If this is indeed true, then what is the purpose of having the highest GDP growth? Obviously, mere slogans of LiFE may not remove this blot. It needs urgent and hard policy decisions, with strict implementation, which sometimes may not be politically palatable. But there is no escape from the current situation under a business-as-usual scenario.

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If prime minister Narendra Modi can sustain India’s distinction as the country with the highest growth rate, but also manage to significantly improve AQI in India’s cities, it can pay the BJP handsomely in the 2024 general elections! And, if he can manage to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with support from a very able external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, Modi may even be a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize! Opportunity is knocking at his door for him, to give his best to India and to the world. Only by December 2023, we will know whether he has grabbed this opportunity or let it pass.

We know that the G-20 accounts for two-thirds of the world’s population, about 85% of its GDP and over 75% of its trade. Thus, this is the right forum for Modi and India to emerge as a responsible world-leader and vishwaguru.

The message that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced is loud and clear, as climate change has started causing significant damages through heat-waves, droughts and floods of increasing intensity and frequency. COP27 agreeing to create a ‘loss and damage fund’ for compensating developing countries is a good beginning. But the international community is still far short of the Paris target, with no viable path to containing the global warming to an additional 1.5°C.

According to Climate Watch, the biggest GHG emitters in 2019 were China (12.06 billion tonnes of CO2e), the US (5.77 Bt CO2e), and India (3.36 Bt CO2e). However, in terms of GHG per capita emissions, in 2021, Australia (23.6 tCO2e) was at the top, followed by Saudi Arabia (20.4 tCO2e), and Canada (20.3 tCO2e). Our calculations show that in terms of total GHG emissions per billion dollar of GDP in PPP terms (tCO2e/$ bn GDP, PPP), South Africa (0.65 tCO2e), Indonesia (0.55 tCO2e), and China (0.44 tCO2e) lead the way in 2021. In terms of per capita emissions (2.4 tCO2e) and emission intensity of GDP, PPP (0.33 tCO2e), India is at a relatively better position. And India can showcase this to G-20 heads, provided it gets its own cities to become liveable in terms of better AQI, starting with Delhi.

What is it that Modi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal can do to make Delhi liveable? We know that every winter, when the winds calm and particulate matter accumulates, the political blame game begins on stubble burning in Punjab’s paddy fields. According to SAFAR (System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research), the largest share of stubble burning to Delhi’s AQI this year was 34% (last year it was 42%). Measures aimed at stubble management are not likely to succeed. Unless paddy area in Punjab is reduced by at least one million hectares, this problem is likely to stay. The switch away from paddy towards maize, soyabean, pulses, and fruits and vegetables, requires a ‘diversification strategy’ for at least five years, handsomely rewarding farmers with carbon credits, and saving of water and energy.

Vehicular pollution in Delhi is another major cause of poor AQI. A fast-track strategy to promote electric vehicles (EVs) is the answer. Incentivising, and even subsidising, EVs and charging stations in all parking lots and residential colonies is the way forward.

To control dust, heavy fines must be enforced on builders who do not use water sprinklers multiple times a day at construction sites. All thermal power plants in and around Delhi must be replaced with more renewable energy sources. Solarisation should be made mandatory for all government buildings, schools, as well as public spaces with a minimum specified area. This will help them in self-financing with the help of net metering. Easy access to finance for such renewables would be key.

Learning from other G-20 nations on how to improve AQI in Indian cities and saving millions of lives from choking with every breath need to be made as high a priority as financial stability and growth in this interconnected world.

The authors are respectively, distinguished professor, and researcher, ICRIER Views are personal

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First published on: 28-11-2022 at 06:00 IST