Research and findings show that India is choking under heavy air pollution. The Global Carbon budget ranks the country the fourth highest emitter of carbon dioxide, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) attributes one in eight deaths in India to air pollution and the World Health Organization (WHO) blames pollution for killing the highest number of under-5 children in India. The scientific reports, however, have failed to impress policy makers who believe the evidence remains inconclusive. In a conversation with Manka Behl at the ongoing COP 24 conference on climate matters in Katowice (Poland), Maria Neira, director of Public Health and Environment at WHO, bluntly states that pollution kills:
It is clear from scientific reports that India is one of the riskiest countries when it comes to air pollution. The WHO global air pollution database shows that India has 14 out of the world’s 15 most polluted cities in terms of PM2.5 concentration. What has poisoned the country’s air to this extent?
When we analyse pollution scientifically, the sources of pollution vary for every country. In India, one of the most vulnerable nations, the main sources are very clear – waste incineration, vehicular emissions, large dependency on coal to generate power and lack of energy efficiency systems in residential buildings and industries. The good thing is that the government has done well in identifying these sources.
Pollution from the thermal sector, from which India draws nearly 79% of its power needs, has been debated over decades. The Central Electricity Authority’s (CEA) data reveals an upsurge in coal consumption by power plants. The consistent argument of Indian governments has been that transition out of coal will take time. Do you agree?
India is going slow on shunning coal. We all know there is an urgent need to have an energy transition. If policy makers declare that dependency on coal will stay for some time, the critical question is for how long dependency will be maintained and how quickly the government wants to do the transition. India is not the only country in the world struggling with meeting power demands and reducing use of fossil fuels, there are others too.
Will phasing out coal have a negative impact on Indian economy?
We have plenty of experiences in the world where the transition happened and the countries were asking the same question. When engaged in economic arguments, it is important to consider the health cost which too is huge. India should look at how some countries have achieved the transition, despite coal being the prime source of energy for some of those regions. Look at countries like Norway … they are moving very quickly towards renewable energy and are still the richest. The Indian policy makers need to realise that the more they wait, the more they will lose on economy with public health being a big casualty.
The government has always been shy of attributing deaths to air pollution. It has often dismissed scientific reports as “inconclusive”.
Some of the best scientists in the world who contribute to our reports are from India and most of them have been very outspoken in linking air pollution and health. We can argue about methodologies and other technicalities but what we cannot argue about is that there is a very high level of pollution in India, which is getting into people’s lungs and cardiovascular system. This is extremely obvious from the scientific point of view.
The WHO report released last year stated that 1.3 million people die in India every year due to indoor air pollution. Have you noticed any improvement in this sector?
India still has a large population relying on fossil fuels, charcoal and wood for cooking. However, the government has taken this seriously and the transition towards cleaner alternatives like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is taking place. The government should multiply the transition at a bigger scale.
What’s your final message for the policy makers? How can India fight the crisis?
They need to use all their intellectual and political capacity to invest in actions rather than playing with methodologies or challenging monitoring systems. The actions for India are very well-known: Increasing access to clean energy sources at the household level, using effective technologies for incineration particularly for agricultural crops. A revolution is also needed in public transport systems. And, of course, transition towards renewables. India has the technology, the best minds. We hope with political willingness and resources, there will be a cleaner change.