Clean fuel can improve air quality: Study

Smoke coming from village households in Ladakh, India. Photo by Ajay Pillarisetti.

Replacing the coal, wood, dung and kerosene largely used for cooking and lighting the house across rural India with a clean fuel would significantly improve India's overall air quality and save more than 2.5 lakh lives every year, suggests a new study.

Eliminating emissions from such household sources - without any changes to industrial or vehicle emissions - would lower the average outdoor air pollution levels below India's national air quality standard.

In addition, mitigating the use of household fuels would reduce air pollution-related deaths by approximately 13%, which is equivalent to saving about 270,000 lives a year.

The study, published recently in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has not factored the impact of Central government's Ujjwala scheme under which an LPG connection, an oven and the first cylinder are provided free to women belonging to the Below Poverty Line categories.

Three years after the scheme was launched in April 2016, the Centre in January 2019 claimed to have brought six crores of poor women under the programme.

However, what remains a suspect is the BPL families' abilities to buy the subsequent cylinders and continue using LPG after the first cylinder is exhausted.

“We are evaluating the impact of the Ujjwala scheme in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. We have the list of LPG distributors in these two states and now looking into the satellite images to check if there is any drop in pollution level in the last three years,” Sagnik Dey, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and one of the authors of the study told DH.

The research indicates that the overall benefits of cooking fuel replacement scheme would go far beyond the initial motivation of the programme of reducing only household air pollution, which is a big public health concern.

“The outcome is an improvement in ambient air quality. Nearly 60-70% of the ambient pollution comes from the household pollution, particularly in the Gangetic plains,” said Dey.

In 2015, India's average annual air pollution level was 55 micrograms per cubic meter of fine dust and soot particles called PM-2.5 that goes deep inside the lungs with every breath.

The study carried out by Dey and his colleagues at University of California, Berkley; Urban Emission and University of Illinois showed that cook fuel replacement would bring down the PM-2.5 standards to 38 micrograms for the entire country - even less than the Central Pollution Control Board's national standard of 40 micrograms.

"You can't have a clean environment when about half the houses in India are burning dirty fuels every day. India has to recognize the fact that households are very important contributors to outdoor air pollution, too," said Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley and one of the authors of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) paper.

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