Clean air could be a strong economic boost for India
Clean air should be a basic human right and yet air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health. In 2017, 3.4 million people died prematurely as a result of outdoor air pollution which makes 6% of global deaths. The share for India was 8.26%. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranked New Delhi as the world’s most polluted city in 2014.
The Covid-19 pandemic made urban air pollution a highly visible problem. As cities declared lockdowns, people in many highly-polluted cities saw the blue skies and many of them realised for the first time what the world might look like if the air was clean. Public perception surveys since the pandemic reveal that fresh air has caused many to reconsider a return to “normal”. There’s a clear demand for greener spaces in cities, increased public transportation, work from home and penalising the polluters. The sharp drop in air pollution during the pandemic has also created a greater awareness of the health impacts and vulnerability to threats like Covid-19 due to airborne pollutants.
While India develops its economic recovery plans, it is essential to include measures to reduce air pollution. The lockdown has shown us how quickly the air could be cleaned up if major pollution sources are properly controlled. However, to make such positive change permanent we need to start addressing the sources of air pollution at a systemic level.
An area of obvious concern is automotive emissions. The drastic drop in transport emissions during the lockdown was evident when cities across India recorded a 65-70% reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NOx) concentrations—a pollutant directly attributable to internal combustion engines. At the same time, India has the world’s second-largest road network, and with the current rate of growth, the total number of vehicles is projected to double by 2030. A chronic point of contention has been the expansion of roads to accommodate more cars. Cars are an inefficient mode of transport and use of public space as they waste over 50% of their carrying capacity and are parked for almost 90% of the time. Doubling car numbers could bring even more unbearable traffic, air pollution and expensive additional road infrastructure.
One obvious solution is the two- and three-wheelers which now account for nearly 84% of the county’s annual auto sales and road transport volume. They fare much better on carrying capacity as well—especially three-wheelers used in public transport. Their counterparts, the electric rickshaws, have emerged as a clear winner for the last-mile connectivity across much of urban India since their fares are also 30% cheaper. They are not only cleaner but also quieter.
Electric public transport also ties in with what should be India’s long-term focus: Developing affordable and comfortable solutions for longer distances. Taking inspiration from Delhi’s excellent metro rail, Pune, Navi Mumbai and Nagpur are now also developing their own metro lines. Commuter convenience can be further enhanced by state governments expanding their fleets of electric buses and introducing regulations and incentives for electric rickshaws, taxis and city delivery vehicles. They all have zero on-road emissions, are cheaper to access, and significantly more efficient in moving people around than private cars.
In terms of micro-mobility, studies suggest that 71% of all trips in India happen within a radius of 5 km. These can be easily serviced by electric two- and three-wheelers, which can do several runs per charge at a low cost, even with standard battery packs of 70-80 km capacity. They can operate in addition to a focus on urban redesign that includes more bicycle lanes. It is important to hold extended public discussions between residents of areas with heavy traffic and city planners, so that redevelopment takes into account what non-car owners want. The programmes such as CyclesforChange, launched jointly in Chennai by the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy (ITDP) and the Centre’s ministry of housing and urban affairs to encourage more intra-city bicycle trips, are essential steps in the right direction.
The experience of many European cities shows that moving from heavy car traffic to predominantly pedestrian, bicycling and public transport mobility is often met initially by the hostility of residents, shop owners and drivers but once the changes are in place people appreciate the new arrangements. Shops benefit from pedestrians that can stop and enter easily, the air is cleaner, life is healthier.
However, it is also important that reducing transport emissions is coupled with clean sources of energy. As more renewable energy enters the market, the pollution load of charging EVs will decline nationally, not just locally. As part of state EV policies, state governments should incentivise that charging stations and battery swapping points are powered by renewable energy. The United Kingdom and other countries are introducing the practice of charging stations declaring what the energy source is. In India, some states like Telangana and Tamil Nadu, are already setting an example with reduced power tariffs for the EV charging infrastructure.
Policies for ambitious electrification of city transport could also have a strong economic benefit by boosting battery and electric vehicle production. It can create demand that would catalyse the National Mission on Transformative Mobility and Battery Storage and move India forward in the fierce global competition in the field of energy storage and new mobility. This could be an area of particular interest for international cooperation with the European Union (EU) and some of the most ambitious EU countries in these sectors such as Germany and France.
Overall, the response to recovering after the pandemic has shown that local, collective action has the power to enforce change. A truly green recovery should allow people to avail the cleanest, most affordable modes of travel, which is where e-mobility and public transit solutions are important. With on-road economics starting to tilt irreversibly in their favour, governments would thus do well to prioritise demand-side funding of new mobility over business-as-usual.
Julian Popov is a former minister of environment of Bulgaria, a fellow of the European Climate Foundation and chairman of the Building Performance Institute Europe
The views expressed are personal