Difficult to live up to pledges on climate change

The report of the State of Global Air 2017 released in Boston in February this year that places India’s rapidly worsening air pollution as rivalling China, by dint of India’s poor air quality accounting for nearly 1.1 million premature deaths every year, is not a good projection for the aspirational and media-savvy political dispensation of New Delhi.

As environment is too nebulous an issue to reap political dividends, no one seems to be unseemly bothered about extremely urbanised populations, poorly planned municipal development or rise in the number of passenger cars.

At a time when a pitched battle has been fought over the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the data released by the Central Pollution Control Board on air quality of 46 cities with over a million population reveals that five cities in UP — Allahabad, Varanasi, Lucknow, Ghaziabad and Agra — are among the top worst air quality cities in the country.

The winter fog in New Delhi in November last year, due mostly to crop burning, car exhaust, dust and coal plants, might remind one of haze pollution from forest fires from Indonesia and other countries. According to yet another World Health Organisation (WHO) report last year, half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities happen to be in India.

What is the way out? Though demonetisation of high value currency notes effected in November last year has dented the trajectory of our economic growth in no small measure, we still remain a growth-obsessed nation. But, Richard Heinberg in his book The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality cites three primary factors that stand firmly in the way of further economic growth.

One of the foremost factors is the depletion of important resources including fossil fuels and minerals, next to which comes the proliferation of negative environmental impacts arising from both the extraction and use of resources including the burning of fossil fuels — leading to snowballing costs from both these impacts themselves and from efforts to avert them.

And the last but not the least is the financial disruptions due to the inability of our existing monetary, banking and investment systems to adjust to both resource scarcity and soaring environmental costs.

Just in case we care, the uncharitable report from the WHO was indicative of industrial and vehicular exhaust choking large parts of the country with little monitoring mechanism. Experts have routinely pointed out that national, regional and city-level action plans — with measurable targets to lower pollution levels — are necessary simply because pollution travels hundreds of kilometres.

A committed approach to mitigate dangerous air particles (known as PM2.5) needs long-term planning. There is no way we can turn our back when world economy is on a collision course with the physical environment.

With economic growth being the mantra and an ugly justification for pollution, particularly for developing countries like China and India, a link between urban growth – urban areas contribute more than 60% of the national income in India – and pollution can be easily established.

Policy-makers tend to think that with growing urbanisation, urban areas will play a critical role in sustaining high rates of economic growth. If we consider how uncontrolled urbanisation factors in generating wanton pollution, it is seen that during the year 2009, nearly 15 million vehicles were plying in four big cities (Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad) alone, which constituted 16.6% of all motor vehicles in the country.

The national capital, Delhi, containing around 1.4% of the country’s population, accounted for nearly 7% of all motor vehicles in the country. The number of vehicles has definitely shot up over the years, necessitating an update but the basic point remains the same.

It points to an inadequate public transport system even in cities that have simply failed to keep pace with the rapid and substantial increases in demand.

This has forced the people to go for personalised modes such as mopeds, scooters, motorcycles, and cars and intermediate public transport modes such as auto-rickshaws, tempos and taxis.

This has resulted in not only more congestion and pollution but also injuries and deaths. Mass transport services such as suburban rail systems capable of carrying thousands of commuters have remained limited only to a few cities. Public transport needs a leg-up to improve air quality.

Kamuthi solar plant
As for the use of fossil fuels, they account for 75% of the country’s primary energy needs while more than 80% of its electricity comes from coal. Ahead of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in 2015, India pledged that by 2030 coal would generate only 60% of its electricity.

New Delhi also pledged that it would become a 100% electric vehicle nation and that it would aim to mobilise $1 trillion to develop 1 terawatt of global solar power by 2030 — four times more than the current worldwide total — and grabbed enough eyeballs.

But commentators note that the totemic Kamuthi solar plant in Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu (touted to generate as much electricity as most coal or nuclear power stations) notwithstanding, for India to achieve its Paris climate pledges, it will need hundreds of Kamuthis.

India’s energy generation being among the least sustainable among the world’s large countries, it is difficult to see how India can live up to the onerous burden of pledges it inflicted on itself in its zeal to become a renewable energy powerhouse.

When India meets climate honchos again later this year in Bonn, Germany, it must measure up as much against its advocacy of its sustainable lifestyle and environmental justice, as its capacity to clean the air.

Mindful of T S Eliot’s verse-drama Murder in the Cathedral, the chorus might as well rant: “Clean the air! Clean the sky!” and “The land is foul, the water is foul, our beasts and ourselves defiled with blood.”

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