Sulphur dioxide: dubious distinction

India's large and rapidly growing emission of sulphur dioxide is worrying. According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, India is on the way to or may have already beaten China to emerge the world's largest emitter of sulphur dioxide. The study, which was conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the University of Maryland in the US, points out that while China's emission of sulphur dioxide declined by 75% since 2007, that of India grew by 50% in this period. Sulphur dioxide is harmful to health and the environment. It impacts visibility as it causes haze. In the short-term it weakens human respiratory systems by inflaming air passages, especially those of children and the aged as well as asthmatics. Continued exposure to sulphur dioxide weakens the lungs' defences and aggravates existing cardio-vascular diseases. In high concentrations, it harms plants and trees. And acid rain, which is produced when sulphur dioxide combines with water vapour, can acidify water bodies, killing aquatic life and harming sensitive ecosystems. So corrosive is its impact that it destroys stone and monuments.  

Almost 99% of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere is produced by human activity; high emissions of this gas are therefore a man-made problem. Burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas is the main source of emissions with coal-fired power stations, in particular, being the main culprit. India's lax implementation of emission control standards for coal-fired power plants has put it on the road to disaster. Consider this: Delhi has 13 coal-fired power plants within a 300-km radius. None of them have systems in place to regulate sulphur dioxide and other emissions. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Delhi's air pollution and haze have assumed crisis proportions in recent years. India must reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, too; coal accounts for 72% of India's power generation. To reduce this dependence, India should shift to clean energy sources, including nuclear energy.

Although China continues to grapple with serious pollution, it is acting robustly to tackle emissions. It has installed basic pollution abatement equipment in 95% of its thermal power plants. In comparison, India has such equipment for just 10% of its thermal power plants. India needs to draw inspiration and ideas from China's experience with tackling sulphur dioxide and other emissions. The severe haze hanging over north India in recent weeks should prod the government and public alike to act on the problem. Clearly, pollution in general and high sulphur dioxide emissions in particular are not a distant problem that we can continue to ignore. It is a clear and present danger that demands immediate action.

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