Prioritise action on air pollution

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Published: June 5, 2019 2:44:30 AM

India produces about 60 million tonnes of waste annually, of which only about 25 per cent is processed, and the rest is dumped or burned in open areas.

Climate change, Climate change news, Climate change latest news, air pollution, air

Today is World Environment Day (WED), and the theme this year is air pollution. Fittingly, China is hosting the global WED celebrations in Hangzhou, its high-tech industrial centre. Over the past few years, China has shown how air pollution can be reduced rapidly by a combination of strict actions and use of cutting-edge technologies in pollution control and monitoring. India too will need massive technological innovations to combat the menace of air pollution. But how should we prioritise our actions?

Let me start by acknowledging that some of the best ideas come from those who are not experts. Sometimes experts miss the big picture while the ‘non-expert’ ignores the trifling details and provides a simpler and fresher perspective on a problem.

Recently, in a gathering of ‘non-experts’, I was discussing air pollution in Delhi. While I was trying to inform my audience about the diverse sources of pollution and what we needed to do to control them, a friend made a point that made me rethink the whole issue from a new perspective. He simply said, ‘What we burn the most, pollutes the most.’ Though this sounds like a no-brainer, the fact is we have never applied this simple principle in addressing air pollution in the country. Let us understand this.

There are three major sources of air pollution: burning of fossil fuels and biomass for energy; burning of agricultural residues and waste; and dust emissions from natural and human-made sources. There are other sources as well such as methane and NOx from agriculture that contribute to ozone pollution. But let’s only look at the things that we burn, as they are the largest source of toxic emissions.

Burning for energy: We burn 1600–1700 million tonnes of fossil fuels and biomass annually to meet our energy needs. Of this, about 55% is coal and lignite, 30% is biomass, and 15% is oil and gas. Biomass and coal have the highest pollution potential because they do not burn completely, and hence emit large amounts of unburnt carbon and other pollutants. Biomass has the added problem that there is no possibility of installing pollution control equipment on chulhas (cookstoves), and hence, everything is emitted into the atmosphere. On the other hand, natural gas is the cleanest fuel, while oil products fall in the middle range.

While coal is largely used for electricity generation and in industries, biomass—which includes firewood, agricultural residues and animal dung—is predominantly used as cooking fuels. About 50% of oil is used for transportation, 40% in industries and 10% as kerosene and diesel in households. We consume about a hundred million tonnes of diesel and petrol annually for transportation, which is a significant source of pollution in our cities. Gas is used for electricity generation, transportation and cooking.

Agriculture residue and waste burning: About 100-150 million tonnes of agricultural residues are burned each year on the fields. This is a seasonal activity, and hence, during the burning seasons, they are a significant contributor to air pollution. Waste burning is also a critical source of pollution in cities, but there are no accurate estimates as to how much waste we burn.

India produces about 60 million tonnes of waste annually, of which only about 25 per cent is processed, and the rest is dumped or burned in open areas. Even if we assume that about one-third to one-fourth of the waste is burnt in open areas (an underestimate, in my opinion), then we burn 15-20 million tonnes of waste annually.

So in totality, we burn 1800-1900 million tonnes of fossil fuels, biomass and waste every year. Of these, 1500-1550 million tonnes or 85% are just coal, lignite and biomass. They also happen to be the most polluting fuels.

If we only consider the amount of materials we burn, which is a good proxy, then at an all-India level, 85% of air pollution comes from the burning of coal and biomass; oil and gas contribute less than 15%. So what should our priority in tackling air pollution be?

It is indisputable that we cannot reduce pollution unless we significantly cut emissions from coal and biomass burning. The topmost priority must be biomass burning as this has the added benefit of reducing indoor air pollution and hence saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of womenfolk.

Curbing emissions from thermal power plants and industries has to be the next priority. This is a difficult one; our pollution monitoring and enforcement systems are extremely weak, and we will need massive innovation and cutting-edge technology in pollution control, especially for small-scale industries, to accomplish this.

This doesn’t mean that the transport sector and waste burning are not problems. They might not rank high as overall polluting sources, but they are important sources of pollution in cities. For instance, in Delhi, the transport sector contributes to 20–30%, and in Mumbai, waste burning contributes to about 15% of the PM2.5 levels.

But air pollution is not only a Delhi or a Mumbai phenomenon; it is a pan-India problem. Nearly all Indians breathe air that is considered unsafe by the World Health Organization’s air quality standards. The pan-India principle and priority, therefore, is clear: act urgently on what we burn the most.

(The author is Deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment. Twitter: @Bh_Chandra. Views are personal)

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