Fight air pollution at least cost

India's air pollution mitigating policy must include economic incentives, penalties and decentralisation.

Recently, citing the example of Los Angeles’s  success in its fight against air pollution, US President Barack Obama was referring to the smog-filled air in late 70s when he went there as a graduate student. He was sharing his personal experience of air pollution in Los Angeles to make the point that it is important to continue the fight against air pollution. In 1979, Los Angeles was full of smog that there were days where people who were vulnerable just could not go outside.

Air pollution is primarily a by-product of energy consumption. Impurities in fuels lead to emissions of sulphur dioxide and particulate matter. Choloroflurocarbons (CFC), the major non- fuel air pollutant leads to the depletion of the stratospheric oz-one layer. Air pollutants are at their worst in urban areas, due to the concentration of people, both as sources of pollution and as victims of pollution. It can lead to health problems, including sickness as well as irritation and reduced human performance.

In a written reply in Rajya Sabha recently, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said that 2.61 crore people died due to acute respiratory infection during the 2006-15 period. Air pollution in general causes respiratory ailments and also may affect lung function. Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis etc are the diseases caused by exposure to increasing air pollution, smog and diesel particulate matter pollution are linked to cancer, asthma, premature death and cardio-respiratory diseases.
The elderly and children are the most vulnerable to these pollutants. Urban air pollution also damages materials, increases the cost of maintenance and degrades aesthetics. Southern California, especially the Los Angeles region, had the worst air quality in USA. Home to the largest port complex in USA, Los Angeles relies on diesel-powered ships, trains, and trucks to sustain its operations. 

But now, the success story of Los Angeles in controlling air pollution is a motivating factor for those countries that are serious about controlling air pollution.  The practical solutions to help ameliorate Los Angeles' air pollution problem can be replicated in the metropolitan cities of India.

It is interesting to note that way back in the 1980s itself, Los Angeles was active with sustainable techniques and approaches to control air pollution. The ever increasing freight transport system in the USA relies heavily on diesel-powered vehicles and equipments and is the major contributor to air pollution in California. In 2001, the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) successfully sued the City and Port of Los Angeles under California environmental laws over a major expansion project at the China Shipping Container Terminal.

The result of that lawsuit was the creation of a $50 million air quality and aesthetic mitigation fund and the first green container terminal in the world that utilises "shore side power" for ships and alternative fuel container handling equipment.

Phasing out trucks
Between 2005 and 2008, the NRDC helped the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach develop their landmark Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) and Clean Truck Programmes (CTP). The CAAP includes a compendium of air pollution control measures aimed at drastically cutting port-generated air pollution while enabling ports to grow.

The CTP modernises 16,000 port-serving trucks by phasing out the use of older, more polluting diesel trucks in favour of cleaner trucks. The NRDC is also actively engaged in a $6 million initiative that will install air filtration systems in harbour ar-ea schools. It promotes the use of zero emission vehicles and eq-uipment to replace dirty diesel cargo transport. They are encouraging the ports to jumpstart the use of more electric trucks and cargo handling equipment.

The city of Los Angeles is now promoting alternatives to highway expansion. Building and wi-dening roads is not a sustainable solution in Los Angeles which is notorious for its clogged highways. Building more highway lanes promotes vehicle use and results in more air pollution. Reducing traffic and associated pollution demands a shift from driving private automobiles to using clean, widespread and affordable public transport.

The NRDC is now trying to convince the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Agency (Metro) to adopt a Green Construction Policy that will require projects to utilise only construction equipment, vehicles, and generators that meet strict clean air standards.
In India, as the environment minister says, “to minimise the impact of environmental pollution, particularly air pollution, the government has taken mea-sures like notification of National Ambient Air Quality Standa-rds 2009, envisaging 12 pollutants, formulation of regulations/ statutes, setting up of monitoring network for assessment of ambient air quality, introduction of cleaner/alternative fuel like CNG, LPG, etc and promotion of public transport network.”

When designing its air pollution mitigating policy, it is desirable for India to follow a strategy based on decentralisation, economic incentives and penalties. Such a policy can achieve environmental goals at the least cost.

(The writer is a Bengaluru-based professor of economics and consultant lawyer)

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