This unprecedented public health emergency and economic disruption due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic have given us a new prism to understand the air pollution challenge and its solutions. With vehicles off the road, factories closed and construction activities halted, we have collectively observed the quick healing and rapid reduction in pollution. We have understood the scale of change that is needed to make the skies blue, and the air and lungs clean.
While air quality has improved by default, the systems needed to sustain the air quality gains are under severe economic stress. This has made linking of post-pandemic recovery with pollution mitigation a matter of necessity and not choice. Yet, there is not enough conversation on green recovery. With the economy reopening, the ‘retaliatory emissions’ are bound to increase as is already evident. This casts shadow on the viability of meeting the National Clean Air Programme (NACP) target of reducing particulate pollution by 20-30 per cent by 2024 or meet the tougher target of national ambient air quality standards nation-wide.
What lessons do we draw from this disruption and unintended experiment to shape the future action for clean air? This crisis cannot go waste.
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Clean air action has to move quickly beyond the city limit to clean up the air shed of the larger region. Clean blue sky during the lockdown was possible because the regional influence on local air quality could also be minimised. But the vast majority of the122 non-attainment cities implementing multi-sector clean air plans under NCAP are small municipalities or industrial areas—just small specks in the air shed. This virtually amounts to hot-spot pollution management without much regional impact.
Moreover, effective clean-up needs a clear strategy for green recovery across all sectors. In the power sector, close to 70 per cent of coal power plants cannot meet the new emissions standards by 2022. How can clean air targets be met when coal power plants are responsible for over 60 per cent of particulate emissions, 45 per cent of sulphur dioxide, 30 per cent of nitrogen oxides and over 80 per cent of mercury emissions from the industrial sector?
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Even though the new economic recovery package for the power sector has supported the cash-strapped power distribution companies, this is not linked to sector reforms for more fund flow to enable a quicker uptake of emissions control systems, or to make these projects more bankable or catalyse quicker retirement of old plants. The command-and-control approach must also combine incentives. Adopt first-run policy so that only those plants that meet the emission standards are allowed to sell power. Co-join this with cleaner fuels—gas power or renewable power trajectory.
Moreover, economic recovery measures to support the energy sector also threaten to worsen industrial pollution. Ease of doing business in the coal sector will bring cheap and low-quality coal, and increase industrial coal consumption in the small and medium-scale units. It will be harder for these units to install emission-control systems.
Clearly, the post-pandemic recovery requires a clean industrial fuel strategy. But cleaner natural gas cannot compete with cheaper coal as coal is taxed lower under GST. But natural gas is outside GST and loaded with state taxes. Bring natural gas under GST and reduce its tax burden. Remove coal from open general licensing so that imports can be regulated and its use can be monitored.
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It is also clear that post-pandemic clean air action will be deeply affected by system failures. This is starkly evident in the transportation sector, which is already plagued by enormous infrastructure deficit. Public transport systems have collapsed during lockdown due to the fear of contagion.
Evidence from 14 state road transport undertakings surveyed by UITP (International Association of Public Transport) shows 90 per cent reduction in ridership from the pre-Covid level with net losses escalating by 48 per cent. Viability gap-funding requirement from the government has increased by 69 per cent for bus transport agencies. Urban India has only 48,000 buses when it needs at least 188,500 buses. How can bus transport recover without reform-based bailout packages to meet higher level of ambition in clean air action plans? Similarly, mobility policies will have to be nimble enough to respond to the growing public interest in walking and cycling as contact-free travel, and also institutionalise the grand experiment with working from home to reduce travel requirements and emissions.
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Overall, curbing of vehicular emissions can be a challenge if the stimulus policies do not counter industry pushback on tighter real world emissions regulations linked with BSVI standards and commitment to a roadmap for at least 30-40 per cent electrification by 2030.
Going forward, the biggest hangover from the pre-pandemic era will be the lack of strategy and weak institutional capacity to curb pollution from all streams of waste—municipal and industrial waste and fugitive dust. The current obsession with spot-fixing approach of inspection to find waste, removing and shifting waste does not work as there are no systemic answers to where to take the waste, what to do with it, where is the infrastructure for recycling and material recovery. Same is the challenge of the seasonal crop residue burning.
At the onset of the winter pollution, therefore, while we are seeking speed of action for emergency response to winter smog episodes, it is clear that the big answers are possible only if deep-rooted reforms in industry, power plant, transportation, waste and household sectors are linked with green economic recovery and affordable clean energy access. This requires deeper community awareness and strong political support.
(The writer is executive director, research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi. Views are personal.)