Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Human cost of pollution must drive us to act

We need to adopt a sustainable lifestyle that relies on lesser energy consumption technologies

Air pollution accounts for one out of every eight deaths in India. The findings published in the latest edition of The Lancet fuel the simmering concerns that have led the air-pollution debate for decades. The situation, however, has only gotten worse.

According to the study, India has one of the highest annual average ambient particulate matter PM2.5 exposure levels in the world. The effects of PM2.5 are more dangerous than any other particulate matter, as these particles with a size equal to, or smaller than 2.5mm, can easily get into the respiratory tract and settle in the lungs, and some may even get into our bloodstream.

In 2017, over 77% of India’s population was exposed to mean PM2.5, which was more than 40g/m3, the recommended limit set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards of India. The impact is evident—the unremitting haze hanging over the cities is costing us more lives every year. The study estimates that 1.24 million deaths in India in 2017 could be attributed to air pollution, including 0.67 million to ambient particulate matter pollution, and 0.48 million to household air pollution. At least 11% of premature deaths in people younger than 70 years were due to polluted air. The numbers are overwhelming, but serve as a grim reminder to authorities and communities at large, that actions being taken to control air pollution have not yet yielded results.

The transport sector remains a major source of pollution, yet every year we see an increase in the number of cars. New Delhi, which had the highest annual population-weighted mean PM2.5 in 2017, and remains enshrouded in thick smog for the most part of the year, is itself is home to over 10.3 million registered vehicles. The vehicle growth has quadrupled since 2000.

As per the latest emission inventory prepared by System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), emissions attributable to the transport sector have increased by at least 40% in the last eight years in the National Capital Region.

Clearly, the rapid pace of urbanization and migration towards cities is gearing up vehicle growth and subsequent emissions. The burgeoning population will only make matters worse.

Recognizing the challenge, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for the National Capital Region (EPCA), empowered by Supreme Court to recommend action against rising pollution levels, has time and again called for strengthening the integrated public transport and increasing the fleet of public transport buses in Delhi.

Unless people’s dependency on private cars is not reduced, the situation will not be resolved. The environmental and health benefits of convincing commuters to switch to public transport are clear, yet the transition will not happen until commuters are given a good alternative—in this case, a seamless, integrated and efficient transport system.

A big step has been taken in controlling household air pollution with the launch of the Prime Minister Ujjwala Yojana to provide clean cooking-gas connections. However, the bigger challenge is to contain the rise in outdoor air pollution. Recent studies about the alarming impact of pollution have spurred consciousness among people who are now reasonably aware of the dire consequences that await us, if the pollution levels are not brought under control.

The discerning and alarmed consumer must rise to the occasion and take charge to efficiently control particulate matter emissions. Adhering to stricter vehicle emissions regulation and upgrading vehicles to more fuel-efficient standards is a step in that direction.

There is an emergent need for people to adopt a sustainable lifestyle that relies on lesser energy consumption technologies and equipment. Sustainable building designs that reduce energy consumption and maintain proper air-light balance to substantially reduce heating and cooling costs are effective steps. Indoor air pollution is critical in air-conditioned spaces.

Less energy consumption means less carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that help generate that energy. At present, nearly two-thirds of the electricity in India is produced from fossil fuels, mainly coal, and India has pledged in the Paris Climate Agreement to generate 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. A complete transition to cleaner fuels is the need of the hour and efforts need to be supported by application of emission-controlling strategies and policies to reduce total energy consumption in household and workplaces. Cities like Beijing and Mexico have been making sustained long-term efforts to switch to cleaner energy options and it has shown results.

As population migrating to cities steadily rise, it is important that a sustainability agenda to reduce air pollution be included in the government’s Smart Cities Mission. It is time that we take self-regulated measures to control air pollution in ways that we can, or face dire consequences. The life expectancy in India would have been increased by 1.7 years if pollution levels had been lower than the minimum levels associated with health loss.

There is no time left to abdicate responsibility for our own health. The human cost of air pollution must drive us to act.

Will the consumer rise to the occasion and take charge to efficiently control particulate matter emissions? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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