The COVID-19 Lockdown Can Help Devise Measures to Mitigate Air Pollution

Featured image: Blue skies over the Yamuna River in New Delhi, April 5, 2020. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist

COVID-19 has cast a global gloom by causing severe damage to health, the economy and general societal well-being. Temporarily, clean air provides some respite while a major portion of the world population remains indoors, abiding by social distancing norms. In India too, after many years, the blue sky can be spotted in normally hazy regions, as corroborated by satellite images, pollution data, and social media posts. However, the present air quality (AQ) improvement in India dwells in irony. Amidst the devastating COVID-19 crisis, it is neither the time to rejoice clean air nor would one want air quality to improve this way in the future.

Moreover, this clean air phase is short lived and temporary. Some experts are concerned that environmental restrictions will be loosened to bounce back from the COVID-19 related economic losses. As a result, achieving better air quality may be harder than ever when the global crisis ends. Poor AQ, in fact, makes people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases, like the one caused by COVID-19. Some of the underlying conditions that make certain people “high risk” for coronavirus complications (asthma, COPD) are caused or made worse by exposure to air pollution. Poor AQ increases societal vulnerability in many ways.

Nevertheless, the ongoing episode could be an important opportunity to identify the key drivers of air pollution in regional airsheds. Scientists will inevitably seize the curfew window to understand background levels of air pollutants when the emissions from most important sectors, including transport and industry, have significantly decreased. For others, it could be a chance to make a strong demand for clean air from the authorities. The challenge to sustain the good air days after the COVID-19 lockdown can be mitigated by tapping into the unique aspects of air quality while the air is still breathable. It is also the time to shift the focus from analysing pollution in the big cities and capture a pan India air quality status.

Efforts for air pollution mitigation in India so far

The State of Global Air 2019 report states that air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for mortality. It also states that air pollution alone was responsible for over 1.2 million deaths in China and India each, based on 2017 data. Other recent studies have also pointed out the urgency to mitigate air pollution by transitioning to cleaner fuels and curtail emissions from cooking, transport and industries. To this end, authorities in India have responded by strengthening institutional capacity and realising the need to integrate scientific analysis with policy actions to control pollution.

In 2019, the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) was launched that recognised the need for cross-sectoral coordination for pollution mitigation. Nearly Rs 300 crore, under the NCAP, has been allocated for the expansion of air quality monitoring networks and to develop city-specific action plans aimed at 20-30% reduction in pollution levels by 2024. Additional fiscal support of Rs 4,400 crore has been promised in the Union budget for managing clean air programmes. While these interventions are important for building momentum for cleaning the air, a lot still needs to be done. A clear and concise roadmap for achieving air quality targets under these programmes in a time bound manner needs to be prioritised. Despite these interventions, at present, we can only assess air pollution exposure of a very small section of our society, with only one monitoring station for every 6.8 million people in India, as concluded from a 2019 analysis. With the current monitoring capacity, air pollution variability in the country may not be presenting the correct picture. Thus, before rejoicing over the contribution of COVID-19 impositions, it is imperative to understand what the current trends in air quality in India indicate, without indulging in a narrative highlighting the air quality only in big cities.

Source: Central Pollution Control Board, Air Quality Index (AQI)

Pan-India view of air pollution during the first week of curfew

Initial reports analysing air quality data from the first week of curfew in India suggest that observed air pollution levels represent a five year low. Using the open source Central Pollution Control Board-formulated Air Quality Index (AQI), a colour-coded indicator of air quality with respect to the adverse health impacts shows how dramatically air pollution has improved. Reduction in emissions from major contributors including transport, industries, power plants, biomass burning and dust from construction and road transport has had a stark effect on bringing down pollution levels. Therefore, compared to 2019, the air pollution level during this period has shown tremendous improvement. So far, the air quality narrative has focused on pollution in the bigger cities. However, the current AQI trends show the need to look at the air quality distribution across India.

Compared during the same period, the top ten cities with the worst weekly average AQI values in 2020 have better air quality than the worst performers in 2019. First, the peak AQI value has dropped significantly, from an AQI of 298 in Sirifort, Delhi to 207 in Guwahati. Second, the cities with the worst AQI levels now are mostly different than those in 2019.

Shifting the focus to Delhi, currently only one station in Delhi (Mundaka: 101) shows ‘Moderate’ air quality amongst the top ten locations with the worst air quality during the past week. This is a big departure from the AQI trend from last year when at least three, including the worst performer (Sirifort), stations located in Delhi had ‘Poor’ air quality. So, one can be assured of Delhi’s residents breathing cleaner air in this period. But let us not forget that cities in other states had ‘Moderate’ to ‘Poor’ air quality during the first week of lockdown in India. In fact, Guwahati in Assam, is the only city which shows AQI of 207, with air quality in the ‘Poor’ category. In 2019, all the top ten places with soaring AQI were from two states, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

Top ten locations with the worst AQI in 2020 and 2019. (The seven day average is calculated for the March 25-31 period, accounting for stations that operated for more than six days in this period. Data analysis by the author.)

The fact that new cities are emerging in the worst AQI readings, despite the uniformity of the lockdown orders across the nation, introduces new questions for policymakers and scientists alike.

Top ten locations with the best AQI in 2020 and 2019. (The seven day average is calculated for the March 25-31 period, accounting for stations that operated for more than six days in this period. Data analysis by the author.)

The best performing cities show a similar trend with more cities now breathing ‘Good’ air as compared to 2019, when nine out of the top ten cities had AQI in the ‘Satisfactory’ category.

In fact, the air quality seems to have tremendously improved in the north, with all the top locations, except Chennai (Alandur), reported in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. This explains how residents of Punjab are getting the scenic views of Dhauladhar mountains situated more than 200 km away, in the state of Himachal Pradesh.

Could these trends imply poor compliance with the curfew? Is there an underlying perennial source contributing to a high pollution background that is offsetting the impacts of the lockdown? Could it be a result of the general negligence that the non-metropolitan places face with respect to pollution mitigation, where cities like Delhi get the vast majority of air pollution-related media coverage?

Keeping these questions in mind, we could possibly be missing the places which are still breathing poor air due to paucity of monitoring, which is especially the case in rural areas. The rural-urban disparity in terms of air quality is yet to be fully understood in the air pollution landscape of the country. If the monitoring networks expand in a strategic manner, it would not be too far-fetched to deploy AQI as a nuanced surveillance tool for compliance with the mitigation programs and regulatory measures.

Lessons from the present episode

Air quality in India is a grave environmental concern, which has been highlighted again during the pandemic. Most policy actions related to pollution mitigation have been an outcome of extreme events that destroyed the carrying capacity of a system. From toxic haze during Diwali to the dust storms before monsoons, no event so far has united people in India to make a demand for clean air. While the world grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, the improvement of air quality has provided some respite. It has generated public engagement to some level, with social media posts comparing the sky over India to the European sky. Could the present days be the silver bullet that will generate public demand for clean air, now that the country knows what that feels like? Will this temporary phase of clean air provide a stimulus for more focused and strategic policy actions in the future? Only time can tell.

Disha Sharma is a researcher in atmospheric science, with research orientation towards science-informed policies for pollution mitigation, at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

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