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India’s ‘Airpocalypse’

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The Pulse

India’s ‘Airpocalypse’

India has been pursuing a non-sustainable development path that repeats many of China’s mistakes.

India’s ‘Airpocalypse’
Credit: India smokestacks via

Rising levels of air pollution in India are truly worrisome. New Delhi is now ranked as the most polluted city on earth where air pollution may be 60 times higher than what is considered safe. In total, 13 of the world’s dirtiest 20 cities are now in India, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The ramifications of this development are many. Air pollution has already shortened average life expectancy by three years for almost 700 million people in India, according to an estimate by the University of Chicago. Only China is worse off. Air pollution has shortened the lives of the people in north Chinese by 5.5 years, the relic of its past growth-at-any-cost policies.

China is fundamental in the discourse on air pollution in India. When the WHO released its report on the most polluted cities on earth, India rejected the findings immediately, claiming the UN agency had overestimated the levels, especially in India’s capital, while underestimating the levels in Beijing (ranked 77th in the WHO report). The Indian government was unwilling to accept that the country had already surpassed China’s high air pollution levels.

Many believe that air pollution will be an inevitable side effect if India wants to grow as fast in the next three decades as China did in the past three. When asked recently if he planned to cut coal-powered electricity, Prakash Javadekar, the Environment Minister, responded: “What cuts? That’s more for developed countries. India’s first task is the eradication of poverty.”

China is now significantly more developed than India. Its per capita income is 4.5 times higher. However, it is now paying the price for its past high-growth policies. China’s “pollution is nature’s red-light warnings against the model of inefficient and blind development,” Prime Minister Li Keqiang recently acknowledged.

Consequently, China has now launched a variety of anti-air-pollution initiatives in its declared “war on pollution.” Many may be promising – ranging, among other things, from public transportation enhancement to green trade and a revision of the country’s energy mix. Beijing alone, once dubbed as “Greyjing” by the international media, will invest almost 760 billion yuan ($121 billion) in anti-air-pollution measuresby 2017. Admittedly, China has been no environmental ideal thus far, but it may now be on the right track.

For example, the government has decided that public services will be the dominant form of transport in urban areas, with bus stops every 500 meters in city centers. China is also pursuing a free-trade-agreement on environmental goods and services, reducing tariffs to 5 percent or less for a list of 54 environmental goods. In addition, the country is reshuffling its energy mix. Many outdated coal plants are being decommissioned and, by 2020, the share of non-fossil-fuels in primary energy consumption is expected to increase to 20 percent, according to present plans. These targets are likely to be rigorously implemented, especially with strong political support from the very top.

Meanwhile, India’s public transport systems remain significantly underdeveloped. More and more private cars congest its roads. India has not joined any negotiations on a green trade deal yet and continues to embrace coal as a key source of energy. Many of its coal-fired power stations are outdated and inefficient. Less than one in ten scrubs its flue gases for sulfur compounds. Moreover, its Central Pollution Control Board lacks teeth. Lastly, many Indians still rely on dirty private generators to counter frequent electricity outages, an often ignored key cause of both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Admittedly, India has started to take steps against air pollution. For instance, it ended subsidies on diesel last year. India’s Supreme Court even suggested an extra charge on private-owned diesel vehicles in New Delhi. Meanwhile, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are about to launch the world’s first cap-and-trade schemes for particulates.

These efforts are promising, but will not be enough. Additional measures are needed. Thanks to technological advances, these measures may actually cost less than the Indian government and businesses fear. Indeed, a 2014 report by the OECD which measured environmental policy stringency for 24 member countries and the productivity of 44 million companies in these countries from 1990 to 2012, found “an increase in stringency of environmental policies does not harm productivity growth.” This may prove true for India as well.

Environmental policies need to be designed sensitively so as not to hurt the economy. If the government only sets unattainable standards, or imposes rigid bans with no suitable alternatives, growth may plummet. If the government embraces market-based solutionsas well as novel and affordable clean technologies, both environmental protection and sustainable economic growth may be reachable.

Air pollution kills approximately 7 million people per year, according to the WHO, making it the world’s greatest environmental health risk. China nowadays offers many lessons regarding the medium- and long-term effects of one-sided growth policies, but also taking policy measures preventing air pollution and environmental degradation, while not wrecking economic development. India should take a closer look at China as a case of South-South knowledge and experience transfer.

Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and co-founder of Third World Centre for Water Management. Julian Kirchherr is a doctoral researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.