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For Making Sense of Air Pollution, Second Indian Scientist Wins AGU Award

For Making Sense of Air Pollution, Second Indian Scientist Wins AGU Award

Sarath Guttikunda. Photo: Author provided

Sarath Guttikunda has been awarded the International Award from the American Geophysical Union for his work on making the causes of air pollution more understandable. He is only the second person from India to become a recipient of this award.

Guttikunda is a chemical engineer, atmospheric scientist, TED fellow and founder of Urban Emissions (India). His main research interest is air quality analysis and finding ways to bridge the gap between science and policy. He was a member of India’s AQI formulation committee (2014) and WHO’s air quality guidelines development group (2016-2020). He has a PhD in chemical engineering and environmental policy from the University of Iowa (2002) and a B.Tech in chemical engineering from IIT Kharagpur (1997).

He spoke to Environment of India about the award, and his work, in this exclusive interview.

Huge congratulations on the receiving the award! Can you tell us more about the work it was for and what it means that they are recognising an Indian working on air pollution?

The American Geophysical Union is a 100-year-old institution whose mission is to promote discovery in Earth and Space Science for the benefit of humanity. It is such an incredible honour to have the work that we do at UrbanEmissions.Info be recognised by the scientific community.

Depending on the season, there is an ebb and flow to the discussion on air pollution in India. Hopefully, with the spotlight on air pollution, there is a renewed interest to do something tangible to improve air quality in India.

There is one other South Asian who received the first of these awards in 2007 for his work on water resources. Dr Uppugunduri Aswathanarayana. He founded the Mahadevan International Centre for Water Resources Management in India.

Tell us more about your work on air pollution. What do we know, and more importantly, what are the things we know we don’t know?

I started UrbanEmissions in 2007 with a very specific goal – to provide information that can help policy makers weave a data-centric narrative to improve the quality of air. I also wanted all the research outputs to be available and communicated in a manner that was easy to understand to anyone with an interest in the topic. There was limited information on the air quality in any city other than Delhi when we started the journey and we slowly started to build a library of tools and methods that gave us an understanding of the air pollution situation for different sectors (power plants, transport, industry) and different cities.

One of our umbrella programs is APnA city program. This stands for ‘Air Pollution knowledge Assessments’ for cities, where we collate all the available information from various disparate sources for a designated airshed on GIS maps, satellite retrievals, past studies, meteorology, emission sources and their intensities, to build a representative emissions inventory and pollution map.

The aim is to provide the cities with enough baseline information to jump start informed discussions, instead of putting our hands up and saying we don’t know enough to start any dialogue. In India, we have covered 60 cities under this program and plan to release reports for all the 132 NCAP cities by the end of 2023.

Like in the tier 2 cities in India, there is almost no – or limited – information in several other developing countries. The beauty of the method of analysis is that we could apply the same toolkit to establish baselines for cities in Africa, Asia (Central, East, Southeast, and South), Eastern Europe and Latin America.

What do we know about air pollution? And what don’t we know?

Very simply, we know that the levels of air pollution are high in most urban areas and the problem is spreading beyond urban settlements. We have an idea of what the main sources of pollution are and that the health impacts of air pollution are severe.

What we don’t know is this …

While the obvious health impacts are respiratory illnesses, as we learn more through research, the health impacts extend way beyond the obvious – foetal development, mental health, and metabolic syndrome. Scientists are just discovering how bad air pollution can affect people and we ignore it thinking that we can get immune to it.

We sell the idea that an air filter can insulate ourselves from its most egregious impacts. Wrong. No one can escape it and we are compromising multiple generations because of our short sightedness. The cost of which, we will understand only much later.

How much of your international research experience is helping with your air pollution research in India?

The scientific rigour of graduate school at the University of Iowa has been the foundation of much of the work that I do. I approach air pollution research as I did as a student; how do I test a hypothesis with whatever information is available to me? It is an exercise in creative problem solving to me, and over several iterations, I have a set of tried and tested methods of analysis.

I also view the opportunities I have had to work in several developing countries as a learning and another platform to test the tool kits and further refine them. In every city, while the pollution problem is the same, the kind of information available to document it varies significantly.  While working in these distinct situations, merging and manipulating tools to suit the available data to understand the emissions and pollution baselines, and demonstrating to groups what the data (that they have been collating) can do in the bigger picture of air quality management, the experience has been invaluable.

Every project has made us that much better or more efficient or has improved our understanding of the subject matter.

What are the biggest hurdles in dealing with air pollution? Expense must surely be one of them – is there a way to deal with it? Do we have a plan for a cleaner India by 2030?

It is easy to hide behind the veil of lack of resources to justify inaction. I believe that India is a country with plenty of resources, creative minds, hardworking people and a strong ethic of jugaad so that if we put our mind to it, we can come up with solutions.Expense is not the constraining factor; the lack of governance and accountability is.

Similarly in the research space, while institutions are building computational and instrumental capacity, we are lagging behind in the personnel and knowledge resources and pertinent training to take the work forward; never the finance.

What we really need is programs put in place which are permanent and designed to yield long-term benefits. If city and state departments just followed the mandates they are given, implement existing policies (such as not allowing waste burning and putting more busses on the road, promoting walking and cycling, re-greening, coordinate between departments to see to it that roads are not dug up soon after they are laid, enforce the emission norms at medium and large scale industries, etc), we will achieve a lot.

What is a key issue that is being ignored, but it’s rather obvious, when it comes to air pollution in India?

The key message that we have to keep repeating is that the only way to reduce air pollution is to reduce emissions at the sources. This seems self-evident and obvious, but going by the tactics of band-aid measures like doing something when pollution is bad, we are chasing solutions that will have no impact on the long run.

Next October or November we will be back at the same table, talking about the same sources, and the same measures.

We cannot chase technological solutions without first addressing governance and accountability issues when dealing with air pollution.

This article and interview were first published on Environment of India, Omair Ahmad’s newsletter about India’s environment through a multi-disciplinary lens. Subscribe here. It has been republished here with permission.

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