Next month, air pollution will be back
Authorities must take pre-emptive action, help farmers tackle farm fires and support the poor with cleaner fuel. Citizens have a right to breathe
Amid growing concern about the climate crisis, the pervasive problem of air pollution has not gone away. Air pollution is costing India lives and livelihoods: 1.67 million killed in 2019 (according to the Global Burden of Disease report) and caused a loss of $95 billion annually to Indian businesses (according to consulting firm Dalberg, Clean Air Fund and Confederation of Indian Industry). Improving the life chances of our citizens needs more dedicated and precise interventions.
Climate action benefits air quality. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted recently, under low and very low greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, net warming from reduced aerosol emissions is counterbalanced by net cooling from reduced methane and other ozone precursor emissions. Lower methane emissions also improve air quality by reducing surface ozone concentrations. As India considers long-term climate actions, it must also leverage them for near-term clean air gains.
North India will enter another high-pollution season next month. Despite the pandemic-induced economic slowdown, for more than half of 2020, Delhi residents breathed air that did not meeting National Ambient Air Quality Standards. A Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) analysis finds that Delhi had worse air in winter 2020 (92 severe and very poor days) compared to 80 such days in winter 2019.
Delhi must take pre-emptive action. Cities such as Beijing introduce emergency measures in advance. Delhi’s Graded Response Action Plan kicks in only when pollution rises above certain thresholds. Instead, air quality forecast must be used to issue health warnings and clamp down on polluting sources before the air worsens. Transport curbs, for instance, should be announced in advance of high pollution days. We tolerate security checks when there are credible threats of terrorist attacks. Similarly, pre-emptive emission controls will need mutual trust between citizens and authorities.
Another crucial intervention is tackling farm fires. Between mid-October 2020 and mid-November, farm fires were responsible for 30% of Delhi’s air pollution. Meteorological conditions — winds were calmer for 70% more time than the same period in 2019 — exacerbated the impact of those emissions. We cannot bet on wind speeds. Crop residue burning must stop. But rice dominates the Kharif crop in Punjab. With farmers favouring late-maturing varieties, there will not be too many days between the rice harvest and wheat planting. Once again, there could be a spate of farm fires.
Unfortunately, the challenges with in situ crop residue management (CRM) are likely to continue this season as well. In a forthcoming report, my colleagues note that Punjab has 76,626 CRM machines, such as super seeders, happy seeders, zero-till drills and paddy straw choppers. These are insufficient. The existing happy seeders and super seeders can at best cover two-thirds of the total area sown under non-basmati paddy in 2021. The existing stock also remains underused because of unproven fears that wheat yields would drop. The custom hiring and rental models have not worked and the rise in diesel prices is an added disincentive against using this farm equipment.
The other option — ex situ — is far from reaching scale. Less than 6% of paddy residue in Punjab is managed this way. The supply chain needs to be strengthened. Collecting residue, baling and transporting it to the nearest straw bank (storage) costs ₹1,330 per tonne bale. These temporary storages are needed to get the residue off the farm before the next planting season begins. But transporting it further (say 50 km) to an end-user raises the cost to ₹2,500-3,000 per tonne bale — and to ₹4,000-5,000 for densified biomass briquets and pellets.
Despite challenges, efforts must continue. Apps to connect farmers with a dense network of straw banks and end-users can reduce transaction costs. Demand for biomass must also be raised. Punjab recently allowed industries to use crop residue in boilers. Mandates to increase biomass pellet use in coal power plants could help. Just 10% co-firing biomass pellets with coal in Punjab would generate demand for 7.4% of paddy residue. Although sound steps, they are unlikely to have a significant impact this season.
In the near-term in situ solutions need support. This could include compensation for higher diesel prices, delivery of CRM machines before the harvesting and residue burning season begins, active campaigns to mitigate misinformation about happy seeders, and using apps and awareness to improve use of custom hiring centres.
Indoor air pollution is another major concern. The government’s big push to connect households to cleaner cooking fuels meant that, by March 2020, 85% of Indian homes had an LPG connection. Still, latest research suggests that 38% of Indian homes used polluting solid fuels along with LPG because of their inability to afford cylinder refills. Last winter, when the crop burning season tapered off after mid-November, household emissions (burning biomass for cooking, space heating, water heating) became the main driver of poor air quality in Delhi. Sustainable solutions are needed to ensure that cleaner fuels are used regularly for cooking and heating.
The past year has been a stark reminder about the links between environment, health and prosperity. Climate action — cleaner power, industries and transport — will help greatly with air quality. Meanwhile, authorities must take pre-emptive action, help farmers tackle farm fires and support the poor with cleaner fuels. All are citizens who have a right to breathe.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water and Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Clean Air
The views expressed are personal