As the country’s national capital faces public health emergency and with the Supreme Court lashing out at authorities for their inability to curb air pollution in Delhi-NCR, there is very less time in hand for India to set its environment right. The air quality, which has consistently taken a dip for quite some time now, is expected to worsen in the coming days due to low wind and stubble burning. Although surveillance and checks to curb pollution have been beefed up, there is no denial of the fact that the measures, as directed by the top court, have come in too late. The present situation is a result of constant denial of the signs that clearly predicted a future public health emergency. The diverted plans, lost school days, halted construction could all be averted if the authorities would have taken the required steps on time.
The quest to find the reasons behind this environmental catastrophe indicates several contributors, such as stubble burning by farmers, emission from vehicles, industries and power plants. Though pollution from stubble burning and transportation could not be controlled to a large extent as they involve extensive public participation, measures could have been taken to keep a check on industrial emissions. The studies conducted by public research organisations indicate that emissions from industries and power plants to be one of the major factors contributing to the capital’s pollution, which either deliberately or accidentally, has long been ignored.
Three-quarters of India’s energy demands are met by fossil fuels, and coal is the dominant source of its energy consumption. With the third-largest coal reserves in the world, it stands out to be a significant player in India’s economic sector, especially in areas rich in resources such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Coal, which is also the largest source of electricity in the world, meets about 72% of India’s electricity demands. Apart from taking care of India’s energy consumption needs, it is also a major employer in the market. The state-owned Coal India alone employs 3,00,000 people.
However, despite being the most consumed natural resource, what makes coal non-reliable for a safe future is its share in carbon dioxide emissions and production of harmful particulate matter. Coal alone is responsible for 40% of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Coal consumption releases particulate matter, the substance that has traumatised India, especially its capital. According to environment website Down to Earth, Delhi tops the list of carbon emissions with an annual carbon footprint of 69.4 million tonnes, at par with the emissions of Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai put together.
According to a study by World Resources Institute, India’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2014 accounted for 6.5 per cent of the global total, making it the fourth-largest emitter of GHG after China, the U.S. and the European Union. The main culprit behind India’s rankings was its dependency on coal. The need for immediate action on India’s carbon menace is supported by the fact that it is reaching closer to countries like the United States, which has far exceeded its carbon share. The lifetime carbon consumption of an average American is 15 times larger than that of an India. Having said that, in 2017, the carbon dioxide emissions of an average Indian stood at 1.9 tonnes against the 16.9 tonnes of emission by their U.S. counterparts.
India could adopt scientific measures such as sustainable intensification to bring down its carbon emission levels. It is a process to increase agricultural yields without any adverse impact on the environment as a result of which improved food production and better ecological results could be achieved. The process is aimed at ensuring more food production for a growing population and improving carbon balance. As far as carbon-related climate change is concerned, India has three major commitments to be fulfilled by the year 2030. Firstly, it intends to reduce carbon intensity by 35% in comparison to the figures in 2005. Secondly, it aims to ensure that 40% of its electricity is generated from non-fossil fuels, and thirdly, it has determined to achieve 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide sequestration through tree plantation.
Carbon sequestration refers to the process of capturing carbon dioxide into natural carbon sinks such as oceans, rocks and forests, etc. The process involves capturing carbon from coal-powered power plants before it is released into the atmosphere. After capturing carbon from coal-based power plants, it is transported and stored into deep layers of rock for preventing its migration thereafter. Since forests are mostly used as ‘carbon sinks’, India could learn from China, which planted a vertical forest to absorb 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. The forest produces around 60 kg of oxygen every day.
India’s GHG emissions majorly come from four sectors: energy, industry, agriculture and waste. The analysis by GHG Platform India, a civil society initiative to assess climate change, states that 68% of the country’s carbon emissions were from the energy sector. The emissions released while the generation of electricity is thrice than that produced by the industry sector. The National Electricity Plan being prepared by the Central Electricity Authority has adopted in its draft manual, measures to reduce emissions. The plan states that apart from already under-construction projects, the country needs no extra coal power stations until 2027, therefore it includes a moratorium on any new coal-based units. It proposes to adapt to cleaner technologies for energy production and has set a goal to include 40% non-fossil resources in the fuel mix by 2030.
After energy, the industrial sector secures the second position as far as GHG emissions are concerned, out of which industries such as iron and steel, fertilizers and chemical manufacturing release a huge amount of greenhouse gases. As the number of manufacturing industries has been growing, the rate of GHG emissions from these establishments is also steadily increasing. As per data released by Council on Energy, Environment and Water, the overall GHG emissions from the manufacturing sector almost doubled between 2005 and 2013, out of which emissions from fuel has contributed for about 65 to 75% of the overall emissions. With Gujarat being the highest emitter, the leading offenders of greenhouse gases include mineral-rich states such as Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Poor solid waste and wastewater management in India is another reason behind India’s GHG emissions. The emissions from the waste sector have increased at a rate of four per cent from 2005 to 2013. The municipal waste and the domestic and industrial wastewater disposal has remained poorly addressed. However, some of the central government’s infrastructural and urban development initiatives prominently include solid waste and wastewater management. In addition to the already running programs such as the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission and the Urban Infrastructure Governance, the revision of Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules could also help reduce GHG emissions. The increased focus of the government on turning waste to wealth also gives hope towards reduced emissions in the waste sector in future.
Although not in the same proportion as the energy and industry sector, agriculture has also played a significant role in greenhouse emissions. The widely prevalent practise of stubble burning in states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, has resulted in the release of GHG emissions and has added majorly to the health emergency being faced by the national capital. Besides burning of crop residue, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from paddy cultivation and soil management, also contribute to environmental degradation caused by this sector.
The reason why farmers prefer burning their harvested crop waste is that the other alternatives of disposing of them are unaffordable to him, therefore introducing scientific measures for disposal of crop residue will give farmers the much-needed alternative to the problem. The Supreme Court, in its recent order, has asked the government to buy this stubble from the farmers at a reasonable rate as a solution to the seasonal burning of crop residue.
The target set by India in international climate conventions has been highly ambitious. However, its budget for the same that has been a disappointment. India, as a part of the Paris Agreement, has pledged to reduce the emission intensity of its Gross Domestic Product by 33 to 35% by 2030. However, it has made no specific allocations to tackle climate change.
Like the United States, India needs a carbon capping policy which would fix a price on carbon emissions by large scale emitters. Reducing dependency on coal and investing more on renewable sources of energy would be another major step towards controlling emissions. Developing solar or wind energy-based alternative projects to mitigate emissions combined with reforestation could also help reduce carbon footprint. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. The atmosphere in India and its capital has reached the verge of collapse, and it requires much more than an eleventh-hour rescue operation for survival.