Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Opinion | The sociology of air pollution

The middle class is the cause, victim and solution to climate change and urban air quality

The continuing debate on Delhi’s air quality underlines that we are dealing with the symptoms and not the causes of the problem. 

Beijing’s success in controlling air pollution was not because of regulating car use through the ‘odd-even’ measure as its efficient public transport systems covers 70% of trips. Current solutions to climate change also stress social transformation.

The population shift into the middle class in cities raises three policy questions. First, since much of air pollution is caused by activities that lead to climate change, there should be a comprehensive plan for cities. Second, the West, with one-fifth of the population, uses four-fifths of the natural resources. We should identify and modify, not adopt their wasteful trends. Third, the courts with their reliance on regulation and bans will not change behaviour.

Values matter: Instead of following Western priorities of technological solutions for the consequences of human behaviour, we should really consider how to change that behaviour itself. Driving a little less, recycling waste, and pushing renewable energy will not appreciably lessen the impact. Wasteful ways of life must be questioned. 

National Geographic Society’s Annual Greendex analysis of global consumption habits ranked American consumers last of 17 countries surveyed with regard to sustainable behaviour. Significantly, the study found that they are among the least likely to feel guilty about the impact they have on the environment. India is at the top and China second, yet feel guiltiest about their impact, evidence of potential for transformation.

Well-being and resource use: Industrialization, infrastructure development and urban consumption patterns cumulatively contribute to well-being as three distinct but related trends. The dynamics of each of the three drivers of pollution have different characteristics: industrialization is the transformation of a natural resource, infrastructure supports economic growth and standards of living and consumption of the urban middle class is focused on well-being. 

Infrastructure, rather than industry, is indispensable for the provision of services essential for human well-being. It has used up half of the material stock, has no substitute and will use up more than half the available carbon budget before saturation levels are reached around 2050. By modifying long-term trends, we can enhance the remaining budget and abate urban air pollution.

Urban design of infrastructure is the critical factor in the intensity of urban energy use and pollution. Even after industrialization and infrastructure reach stabilization levels, consumption will continue to be propelled by the shift of the economy to the services sector and increasing levels of pollution from wasteful lifestyles. Two-thirds of the energy use and emissions of carbon dioxide come from cities; two-thirds of this is from vehicles, the major cause of poor ambient air quality, and buildings and diet. 

Changing behaviour: The optimum solution is to lower energy demand in all dimensions while maintaining the level of energy services. Currently, four-fifths of the global net primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels. It will not be technologically possible to meet the growing energy needs while maintaining comparable levels of well-being in the next few decades with renewables. Energy efficiency has the potential to reduce total demand in 2050 relative to current levels by one-third per unit of economic output, or well-being, without affecting the service provided and a cheap option. But how do we change behaviour?

Buildings account for one-third of final energy demand and one-fifth of emissions, and both are predicted to more than double by 2050. Their pattern of use is dependent on their density and size, which are shaped by behavioural norms, culture and practices of convenience, just as in the case of transport. 

Buildings use 40% of primary energy in the US but only 28% in China, which is now the second largest economy, because of lower energy use needs.

Transport is the fastest growing and soon to be the largest source of pollution. For every 1,000 people, the US has 800 vehicles on the road and India 40. We need not follow the US trend. With shared transport, if vehicle occupancy increases by 25% and vehicle usage per day by 75%, it delivers the same intra-urban mobility with 50% of the vehicle fleet. 

Fundamental conceptual shifts are taking place in cities in this area. Housing and roads are being seen as part of the social system, rather than the alternative of providing for automobiles. There is a focus on mobility instead of transport. This should be the core of ‘smart cities’. 

A recent survey has pointed out that more than 80% of people in cities would prefer to take public transport if there is affordable and robust last-mile connectivity. Significantly, six out of 10 non-users of public transport were willing to shift provided safety, coverage and frequency were improved. Elevated roads are a temporary fix and the priority should be redesign for public and shared transport, and ultimately electrification.

Well-being within ecological limits requires a societal transformation redefining ‘happiness’ in accordance with our own rather than Western values. 

Mukul Sanwal is former head, division of pollution control, government of India, and director, UNFCC.

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