New decade, old menace
From new emission standards and electric vehicles to reducing stubble fires, time for India to reinvigorate its battle against air pollution
The annual winter routine of pollution peaks, smog episodes, stubble burning, low visibility, and an increase in people coming to hospitals with respiratory troubles didn't spare 2019.
In fact, as the year drew to a close, cities across north India saw a deterioration in air quality once again, after a respite in pollution levels earlier.
The toxic smog became a new normal in south Asia as different studies showed that it had the maximum number of cities in the list of the world's top 20 polluted cities. Many regions of south-east Asia were also recently enveloped in hazardous haze.
So as we enter a new year, where do we go from here? Will we be in a similar situation in the winter of 2020?
New Year, new standards
April 2020 will see the rolling out of BS (Bharat Stage) - VI emission standards in Delhi and the National Capital Region.
This means any vehicle model that will be sold from April 1, 2020, will have to meet BS-VI standards, with a sulphur content as low as 10 parts per million (ppm), five times less than the BS-IV fuels with 50 ppm sulphur, which is the current fuel quality in use.
This will be a big moment in India's emission controlling measures as it is the only major vehicle producing country in the world to skip Stage V emission standards and leapfrog from BS-IV to BS-VI.
With this, the on-road emission test for vehicles is also slated to kick in. This was necessitated in the backdrop of the Volkswagen's 'dieselgate' scandal in which, it was caught using 'cheat' devices in diesel engine cars to appear less polluting in laboratory tests.
The on-road tests will monitor emissions in real-time, while they are moving on the road. The Automotive Research Association of India is working on this. After the scandal, Europe too brought in tighter real-world driving emission requirements and improved testing procedures.
2019 was also the year electric cars gained popularity globally. According to findings by EV Volumes, a global EV market data and consultancy firm, globally, the EV market share was at 2.2 per cent in the first 10 months of 2019.
With many world cities having targets of zero or low emission transport in the next five years, the transition to electric vehicles is likely to gather more steam.
On December 23, 2019, the Delhi government approved a policy on EVs which said that by 2024; at least 25 per cent of the vehicles would be electric.
But it is not just vehicles that are the national capital's worry when it comes to severe pollution levels. For long, the authorities have been trying to control stubble burning in neighbouring towns in Haryana and Punjab.
While the efforts have brought some positive results, there is still a long way to go. With new innovations in terms of machines like happy seeders and super SMS, the state governments will have to find means to convince farmers to use them and increase their reach.
The National Clean Air Programme, announced early 2019, has a time-bound reduction target and proposes to achieve a national-level target of 20-30 per cent reduction in Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and PM10 concentration by 2024.
But since the programme lacks teeth and does not create a firm mandate, the onus will be on the respective state governments to see to its success in the next four years.
Many cities in the developing world are a work in progress, with round-the-clock construction. As countries move towards building more infrastructure in the next decade, construction dust and its ill-effects will have to be checked.
All around the globe, there has been an increasing clamour for linking health and air pollution. As Australia burned from toxic air from bushfires in December 2019, a 'public health emergency' was declared. Experts in the United States assessed health risks in people when California was filled with smoke due to wildfires.
Work in tandem
But in India, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar recently said in Parliament that there was no Indian study linking air pollution with the shortening of life span. He went on to add that a fear psychosis was being created among people by making such a connection. By saying this, he contradicted the government's own study, released in 2018.
India cannot reverse the increasing curve of air pollution if it lives in denial and discredits its health-related effects. Health departments will have to closely work with the environment ministry to achieve many of the United Nations-mandated sustainable development goals under Agenda 2030.
Also, the seriousness around air pollution in India is seen mostly when the winter sets in and the situation goes out of hand. The discourse around it often correlates with the air quality index worsening.
If air pollution is to be combated, it has to be turned into a movement year-long. Along with short term and knee jerk solutions like water sprinklers and smog towers, India and the world will have to make sustained year-round progress. DOWN TO EARTH
Views expressed are strictly personal