Since the government began easing the lockdown restrictions from May 18, human activity is slowly getting back on its feet. Now, the people have the responsibility of figuring out their new normal, even as they navigate their professional engagements and physical distancing norms.
As it happens, another thing they’ll have to navigate is change in air pollution levels – unless, of course, they – and their elected representatives – are prepared to ensure the (somewhat) cleaner air during the lockdown continues to be the case throughout the year.
Air pollution is caused by natural, stationary and mobile sources. The concentration of these sources in a particular region determines the pollution levels there, as do some geographical and meteorological factors determine the concentrations and times at which the pollution becomes ‘severe’ or life-threatening.
For example, New Delhi is landlocked and surrounded by industrial clusters. From October to January, the wind speed and direction, humidity, low atmospheric mixing height and low ventilation causes pollutants to linger for longer than disperse, resulting in long spates of visible air pollution. On the other hand, many other cities around the country are more affected by point sources.
Similarly, even other cities benefit from favourable meteorological factors, especially high wind-speed. The Kollam-Thiruvananthapuram industrial belt, for example, is one of the country’s 10 major industrial clusters: it has an array of factories producing chemical fertilisers, paper, rubber, sugar, textiles, glass and cement. However, Kollam’s air quality is appreciably better thanks to these non-source factors.
Ergo, policies to site industrial clusters should consider the wind velocity at each prospective locations. Locations where, despite the concentration of pollutants in a specific region, other meteorological factors stay the same.
So in this regard, and much like the red, orange, green, and white categories used to classify industries, the government should identify zonal clusters: ‘white’ for those with perfect meteorological and geographical conditions to host a higher concentration of factories, etc. Favourable wind velocities could also allow the state to erect wind farms near the industrial cluster and reducing local energy demand from the grid. This whole project can be undertaken in a phased manner, with factories moved to areas with an existing grid-connected renewable energy system.
Similarly, major-cattle farming enterprises can also be moved to areas with favourable topographical and meteorological factors. The livestock sector requires a significant amount of natural resources and is responsible for about 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions could be less harmful if they aren’t concentrated in landlocked areas with low rainfall and wind speeds. Such translocation would also allow the government to define separate emissions standards for separate clusters, instead of having to use a one-size-fits-all national policy.
This in turn is an important step to defining a central policy for air pollution standards in a country the size of India. Industrial towns like Gwalior and Vishakhapatnam can’t be audited according to the same requirements thanks to the big differences in their topography, climate and proximity to the coast. Overall, the current pandemic and the lockdown should give the government and the Central Pollution Control Board an opportunity to explore establishing zonal diversification standards, especially for the primary pollutants (NOX, SO2, CO and CO2). The policy tools at their disposal include:
* Reduction of emission standards for clusters favourably placed in terms of air quality
* Tax incentives in the form of rebates
* Carbon certificates that can be traded in the open market
* Cheaper renewable electricity (solar, wind and bio-fuel) for energy-intensive sectors
Industries that are reluctant to abide by such relocation would have to invest in cutting edge R&D and technology to lower their emissions according to the revised standards. This would further the ends of multi-sectoral greening both in terms of technology and air quality.
As for metropolises like Delhi: the state should explore innovative ways to address vehicular and mobile sources of pollution. Local tolls with fast-tags on non-residential roads, with the provision of charging toll-tax on days with low wind speeds, is one example. This would discourage people from using private vehicles and encourage them to use public transport instead. Such a policy could also create an explicit correlation between pollution and monetary cost for the residents, in turn creating an environmentally aware and conscious citizenry.
To contemplate any solution to our environmental crisis, it’s important that the first step is to minimise our carbon footprint, phase out the use fossil fuels and use efficacious policy tools.
Eeshan Chaturvedi is an environmental and energy lawyer, founder of the environmental and public policy think-tank EnviPol and a faculty member at the Jindal School for Environment and Sustainability. He tweets at @eeshanchtr.