- Enforcing air pollution controls can prevent premature deaths from air pollution exposure, even in scenarios dominated by continued coal-fired power generation, a study has said.
- The study finds that weaker enforcement of air pollution control policies leads to worse air quality and more health damages than those observed from limited enforcement of energy policies.
- The role of citizen action and advocacy is critically important. There needs to be advocacy for action where citizens are informed and inspired to reduce their air pollution footprint and advocate for bold commitments from the public and private sectors.
- State of Global Air Report released on October 21, 2020, states that India had the highest annual average PM2.5 exposures in the world in 2019. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Nepal all rank among the ten countries with the highest PM2.5 levels.
Enforcing air pollution controls can prevent premature deaths from air pollution exposure, even in scenarios dominated by continued coal-fired power generation, a study has said. The study quantified the importance of policy enforcement in India’s electricity sector for achieving air quality, health, and carbon mitigation objectives.
The coal-dominated electricity system poses major challenges for India to tackle air pollution and climate change. Although the government has issued a series of clean air policies and low-carbon energy targets, enforcement remains a key barrier.
“India faces the dual challenge of improving air quality and curbing carbon dioxide emissions. While carbon dioxide has not been considered a classic air pollutant, its effects on temperatures influence meteorology and both feedback to air pollution,” study co-author and air quality scientist Pallav Purohit of International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis told Mongabay-India.
Purohit said that weaker enforcement of air pollution control policies leads to worse air quality and more health damages (e.g., 14,200 to 59,000 more PM2.5-related deaths in 2040) than when energy policies are not fully enforced (5900 to 8700 more PM2.5-related deaths 2040).
“This is because coal power plants with end-of-pipe controls already emit little air pollution,” said Purohit. End-of-pipe controls refer to an approach to pollution control that targets effluent treatment or filtration before discharge into the environment (usually the last stage of the process) instead of making changes in the process that gives rise to the wastes or contaminants. Examples include installing flue gas desulfurisation (FGD) technology for controlling sulfur dioxide (SO2).
Study co-author Wei Peng said that many policies could simultaneously clean up the air and change the way we use energy, such as shutting down inefficient coal units, increasing renewable energy use, improving energy efficiency, etc. However, it is not always a win-win situation. “For instance, installing end-of-pipe controls on thermal power plants to meet stringent emission standards can significantly reduce the air pollution, but does not change the energy use (and hence the associated carbon emissions),” said Peng of Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at
Penn State University.
The study considers “clean air policies” as those primarily targeting reduction in air pollution. These are the Environment (Protection) Amendment Rules, 2015, which tightened all thermal power plants’ emission standards. It also factors in end-of-pipe air pollution controls like flue gas desulfurisation (FGD) for controlling sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions and high-efficiency Electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) for controlling particulate matter (PM) emissions from thermal power plants, among other controls.
Energy policies considered in the study are those that mainly address energy issues, although many can simultaneously clean up the air. These include universal electricity access by 2025, a national target of 175 GW renewable capacity by 2022, all new coal power plants using supercritical or ultra-supercritical technologies, and expanded efforts to strengthen the national grid.
The study’s findings on the health effects of ambient fine air particles (PM2.5 exposure) is consistent with prior results: PM2.5 exposure accounts for most long-term health damages and leads to much larger mortality impacts than other types of pollutants (e.g., ozone) in India and worldwide. “If India cannot reduce or eliminate its reliance on coal, the enforcement of air pollution control is essential to mitigate the country’s public health crisis,” emphasised Purohit.
PM2.5 refers to particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter, and less than a 30th of the diameter of a human hair. According to the State of Global Air Report released on October 21, 2020, India had the highest annual average PM2.5 exposures in the world in 2019. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Nepal all rank among the ten countries with the highest PM2.5 levels.
Air pollution contributes to more than 116,000 infant deaths in India, according to the report, that finds progress in reducing household air pollution exposures but levels stagnant for outdoor PM2.5. India released its National Clean Air Programme in 2019 with a view to reducing outdoor PM2.5 levels by 2024. While the program has been criticised for its lack of a legal mandate and its narrow focus on cities, it has led to increased engagement on the issue of air pollution at the state and local levels.
Shweta Srinivasan, a research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology, and Policy (CSTEP), who was not associated with the study, agreed with the broad findings. She iterated a 2018 CSTEP study that said that without controls, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions will doubles compared to 2015 baseline emissions, while PM10 emissions will increase by 30 percent over the next 15 years.
“Coal power plants currently contribute over half the country’s sulfur oxide emissions – without installation of FGDs, air quality will deteriorate. While there is some dispute on nitrogen oxide controls and applicability to Indian conditions – FGDs and Limestone Injections are a proven control measure for sulfur oxide and will impact the cost of generation only marginally,” Srinivasan told Mongabay-India.
Purohit and co-authors said while limited enforcement of energy policy may not be a significant issue for air quality, it will undoubtedly undermine India’s efforts to mitigate climate change through low-carbon development as laid out in the Paris Agreement. Scenarios with the limited implementation of energy policies (such as business-as-usual and ambitious scenarios for 2022 and 2040) assume unsuccessful efforts to scale up the renewable generation and/or improve the coal power fleet’s efficiency. The business-as-usual (BAU) scenario projects a much more coal-heavy power mix in the future, implying policy failures in achieving renewable installation and generation targets.
However, Srinivasan said the limited ‘energy policy enforcement’ scenario is “highly unlikely.” “If at all coal plants are added, they will be a part of India’s low carbon energy transition; most experts agree that these will be used at lower plant load factor to manage grid balancing objectives with high renewable energy. However, there is no doubt that a further low carbon mandate in the power sector beyond 2030 will benefit the country’s air quality,” Srinivasan said.
Demographic changes influence air pollution impacts on health
Demographic changes also play an essential role in determining past and future health impacts of air pollution in India. Peng explained that on the one hand, demographic changes are drivers of energy use and air pollution emissions; on the other hand, they are also vital factors determining future health burden from air pollution of exposure in India.
“In fact, for the reference case when both energy and air pollution policies are implemented fully, we find a 50 percent increase in PM2.5-related premature deaths nationally from 2015-2040, despite a nine percent decrease in PM2.5 exposure level due to the successful implementation of clean power policies,” said Peng.
“In our study, from 2015 to 2040, the total population is projected to increase by 21 percent. Also, due to the effect of aging, the share of the population older than 60 years is projected to increase from 8.9 percent in 2015 to 17.8 percent in 2040, further increasing the health burden due to air pollution since the elderly population is more vulnerable. If we hold demographic factors constant at 2015 levels, the reduction in PM2.5 exposure from 2015 to 2040 can lead to a three percent decrease in total deaths, indicating that future mortality will be significantly affected by demographic changes.”
“But our main findings remain that policy failure will always lead to more premature deaths than the reference case and that implementing clean air policies is the key if air pollution control is the primary policy target,” said Peng.
Srinivasan said clean air, climate, and better health goals have been thought of in silos for too long. There is no doubt that a low carbon mandate in the power sector now and beyond 2030 will benefit the country’s air quality – but the details matter.
“FGD installation has the potential to reduce the lion’s share of sulfur oxides in the country. Sulfur oxides are known to contribute to secondary particulates, and studies have shown that power plant emissions can travel large distances and affect human health adversely. Hence, despite an upfront cost, mandating sulfur oxides controls for coal plants that are likely to be a part of India’s energy transition story is a no-brainer in the coming decades. Further, analysis of the impact of controls on inland vs. coastal plants, and impact of controls in densely populated areas or cleaner air-sheds can help set up a priority for mandating controls to maximise health benefits,” she said.
The role of citizen action and advocacy is critically essential, added Purohit.
“Indian citizens have taken political and legal action against pollution. Citizen activism should be seen as a process that progresses from pollution to grievance and from grievance to remedial action. In this process, citizens learn about the effects of pollution and decide to take one or several forms of action. This decision and the action selected are influenced by a range of economic, social, political, and legal factors. There needs to be advocacy for action where citizens are informed and inspired to reduce their air pollution footprint and advocate for bold commitments from the public and private sectors,” elaborated Purohit.
Delhi-based parent and environmentalist Bhavreen Kandhari said that parents were objecting to their children practicing early morning sports in very poor Air Quality Indices (AQI) for many years. Still, it was difficult to convince the schools, “just like the others who refused to believe the seriousness of this toxicity that our children were breathing.”
Kandhari, spokesperson of the group Warrior Moms told Mongabay-India that after much persuasion, “this was the first year when the school planned a ‘smog week’ off and planned their calendars according to that.”
This year, however, the novel coronavirus disease pandemic associated-21-day lockdown in March brought about a significant improvement in air quality in the country, with 91 cities recording air quality in the ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ on March 29, according to the Central Pollution Control Board.
The State of Global Air 2020 Report highlights that “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health has rocketed to the forefront of our collective concerns. We are continuing to learn about the damaging effects of COVID-19 infection, an invisible threat to our respiratory and cardiovascular health carried through the air we breathe.”
“While COVID-19’s effects may appear in a few short weeks, the health consequences of air pollution may take years to manifest themselves in the form of chronic diseases. And yet, as we have learned in recent months, the underlying toll that air pollution has taken on respiratory and cardiovascular health over time has made individuals more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19,” the report emphasised.
Banner image: Thoothukudi Thermal power, Thoothukudi. Photo by Hassan Afridhi/Unsplash.