When the common flower girl, Eliza Dolittle, is taken to the Ascot races in the classic, My Fair Lady, she is under strict instructions from her tutor, professor Henry Higgins, to stick to two topics of conversation: “the weather and everybody’s health.” Little did professor Higgins realise that within a century, both topics would no longer be considered polite and light-hearted conversation, but would become burning matters of policy in large parts of the developed and emerging world. Since industrialisation, air pollution has persisted as a practical challenge. The reason it is also a hard intellectual challenge can be traced back at least to the seminal contribution of Ronald Coase in 1960, if not earlier. Devising policies to address local, national and global air quality confronts the messy contest of allocating transaction costs across stakeholders whose first reaction is to oppose. Thus, emissions from power plants and automobiles, to name two sources, impose costs of cleanup that must be borne by someone. Those responsible often question the efficacy of doing so in the interest of growth and jobs. The problem is that air is not owned by anyone and yet, jointly and severally, belongs to everyone.
When the going is good, collective action is not required; but, when air quality deteriorates to the levels now, action is vital for our survival. Historically, there have been a number of smog episodes around the world; the two most famous ones are a series of eight in London between 1948 and 1962, of which the one in 1952 was the worst, and the Donora, Pennsylvania, episode in 1948. Declining urban air quality and the resulting respiratory ailments are on the rise. Is this really the quality of life that we wanted while building our urban agglomerations? Last week, the Chinese media reported that Beijing is to shut down its largest coal plant on the outskirts of the city, and, ironically, on the same day, Indian newspapers reported that Delhi would be reopening the coal power plant located on its outskirts.
The plant was shut down, in the first instance, to alleviate pollution in the capital. Yet, it seems that it is needed to reduce the electricity supply deficit. Policies and actions such as this beg the question: Is there no alternative? With greater technological innovations, can we not collectively find a solution to curb pollution? Air pollution problems are not only restricted to the middle-income countries, but are a problem in their developed counterparts, too. Note, a primary driver of air pollution is the geography of a place. For instance, both Delhi and Beijing are similar, in the sense that both cities are landlocked and surrounded by mountains, which restricts air movement. With little or no wind, the pollution hangs heavy and is not dispersed through natural means.
A desert area will always have higher particulate matter since the air composition includes varying sizes of dust particles. The worst-polluted cities in the world as named by the WHO, almost never include a coastal city, but are ones in desert regions. Many European cities too faced a challenge from pollution the past winter. London and Paris both reported particulate levels above permissible levels and had to put in place emergency measures. Many air pollution source apportionment studies tell us that pollution is a trans-boundary concern and travels across man-made boundaries. The problem of air pollution, thus, has to be addressed both locally and globally. As economic theory states, the consumption patterns drive production of goods and services, and if there is a demand for greener products, then the market will have to cater to this demand. But, importantly, that demand has to be created, and for that, we need to make educated decisions and drive the market rather than let it drive us.
An example of this is the energy-efficient LED bulbs, purchased at scale by the government and sold at an affordable rate to consumers—a classic instance of economies of scale benefiting citizens. If we, as consumers, ask for the right products, the markets will be compelled to fill the gaps. A perverse case is the flourishing sales of clean air, in cans, in India and China. The current leadership in the US rethinking the country’s stance on the Paris Agreement gives developing countries such as India and China, to an extent, a chance to fill the leadership void. Together, both countries are home to one-third of the world’s population, and any action taken to lower particulate matter will be most visible and impactful in these countries. China is rapidly making progress in deploying renewable energy. Till 2016, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, among India, China, the UK and the US, China had the highest total renewable energy capacity (545 MW), almost twice the installed capacity in the US.
An energy-hungry country like China needs a relatively large amount of power. The Chinese government has already retrofitted a significant number of coal power plants with technology that increases their efficiency and, in addition, has shut down the smaller plants. The government has also mandated that no new coal power plants will be constructed in the country; rather, all new demand is to be met by renewable energy. Recently, a child in India sued the Indian government for inaction on climate change. The oft-cited Brundtland Report (1987) states, “Sustainable development is one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.” Clean air is one such resource that our future generations need in good supply in order to be able to lead a healthy life without compromising their future.
Most large cities with poor air quality have started reporting an increasing number of children with respiratory issues. Perhaps, children are now becoming increasingly aware of their surroundings and have a right to question the actions of the present guardians of their future? Not a day goes by in China when the English language press does not have an opinion piece on air quality, cities or climate. The discourse there has reached a feverish pitch and is being complemented by actions on the ground. Naturally, institutions in India are different and it will be a lot harder to garner support for action. But we must raise the quantity and quality of the discourse around the weather and health to serious heights here and now. As for professor Higgins, his contemporary instruction to Eliza on benign topics of conversation will perhaps have to revolve around nursery rhymes!