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WHO on air quality – What must India do?

Context:

The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its first-ever update since 2005 has tightened global air pollution standards.

Relevance:

GS-III: Environment and Ecology (Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Conservation of the Environment, Important International Institutions and Standards, Government Policies and Initiatives)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. About WHO’s Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) 2021
  2. India’s National Air Quality Index (AQI)
  3. National Clean Air Programme (NCAP)
  4. India’s Air Pollution Crisis put into perspective
  5. India’s predicament with blanking Climate and Economy
  6. Way Forward – China as an example
  7. Way forward

CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT THE TIGHTENING ON AIR QUALITY NORMS BY WHO (WHO’s Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) 2021, India’s National Air Quality Index (AQI) and National Clean Air Programme (NCAP)

India’s Air Pollution Crisis put into perspective

  1. India has 37 of the world’s 50 most polluted cities, despite its air quality standards being laxer.
  2. India’s standards for PM2.5 and PM10 are 60 and 100 µg/m3 respectively (over 24 hours), while the WHO’s new standards are 15 and 45 µg/m3 (over 24 hours).
  3. India’s air pollution-influenced mortality rates are among the worst – the Global Burden of Disease estimates that India lost 1.67 million lives (Uttar Pradesh had the biggest share followed by Maharashtra and Rajasthan) in 2019 directly as a result of breathing polluted air, or because of pre-existing conditions exacerbated by air pollution.
  4. The average life expectancy in Delhi is 6.4 years lower than the national average of 69.4, and the number is starting to fall for even coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai.

The Serious threats

  • The health impacts of PM2.5 exposure now include lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease, ischaemic heart disease and acute lower respiratory illness, besides exacerbating ailments like depression.
  • Exposure to ozone has been linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Prolonged exposure to air pollutants affects newborns and babies still in the womb.
  • Simply put, air pollution is a threat to generations even before they are born.

India’s predicament with blanking Climate and Economy

Economic Growth Stifling Pollution Control

  • India’s economic growth is built on fossil fuels – Coal, oil, and natural gas account for roughly 75% of our power generation and >97% of road transport.
  • Hence, India prides itself on being the fastest growing large economy, and changing the way we generate power and clamping down on petrol and diesel vehicles is seen as throttling economic progress – the ever-growing need for energy and personal vehicles is worsening the public health crisis.

 

Pollution Problem Stifling Economic Growth

  • A 2019 study found that India’s horrendous air quality erased 3% of its GDP for the year and caused a loss of nearly Rs 7 lakh crore (~USD 95 billion). Most of the loss was due to employees failing to show up at work, far fewer people stepping out to buy goods, and foreign tourists staying away after health warnings.
  • Official figures indicate a loss of 820,000 jobs in the tourism industry and 64% of businesses squarely blame air pollution.
  • Poor air quality was found to offset 67% of the cost advantage of using solar panels over grid power, as ground-level smog and the particulate matter chokes their power output.
  • Several studies have noted a 25% drop in crop yield for wheat and rice after prolonged exposure to PM and ozone.

Way Forward – China as an example

  • China went through a similar phase while transforming itself as the world’s manufacturing hub – its cities were subjected to manic air pollution and Beijing was notorious for its smog.
  • Yet, China has had success in tackling the issue (but it should be noted that even after 10 years it is still not WHO-compliant).
  • It has prioritised zero-emissions transport, staggered the use of internal combustion engine vehicles, and enforced a strict clampdown on point sources of pollution that allows for few exceptions
  • China is now the largest market for electric vehicles and clean energy and its per capita incomes have never been higher.
  • Hence, China as an example refutes the myth that clamping down on air pollution stymies economic growth.

Way forward

  • What India needs to do without delay is to revisit its National Ambient Air Quality Standards, revise them down to WHO levels, and implement them without exception.
  • Unfortunately, the new WHO guidelines are not legally binding, so a critical first step is to conduct nationwide epidemiological studies and gather expansive raw health data on air pollution as a risk factor.
  • India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) attempts to incorporate such solutions, but e-mobility and clean energy in India are not yet dominant in their respective sectors.
  • The share of renewable energy has also risen dramatically since 2015 to cross 100 GW in August 2021 but, there is still a long way to go.
  • Another equally essential step is to expand the country’s air quality monitoring network. The CPCB-controlled CAAQMS monitors are expensive (>20 lakhs), and there are only 312 of them spread across 156 cities. Hence, many urban and rural pockets are left unmonitored. Centre and state governments must boost the density of the CAAQMS network to fully inform the science behind the corrective measures, and all of this needs to happen on priority.

-Source: Indian Express

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