Priyanka Shah, Shanghai, Air quality, Pollution, Sino-India, Shalini Rudra, Health Express, SDGs, PM2.5

People practicing Tai Chi in Shanghai as heavy smog engulfs the city

This is the thirty second part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read all the articles here.

With GDP growth rates of over 7 percent per annum, India and China are constantly in the news for being the fastest growing economies. Such unprecedented acceleration is achieved at the cost of the deteriorating ambient air quality across major urban centers in both countries.  Several Indian and Chinese cities defy the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality standards and at times assume toxicity levels that is unfit for inhalation. For instance, the WHO recommends that annual median concentrations of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter less than 2.5 μm in diameter) should be below 10 μg/m3 but the levels in urban areas of India and China are six times higher at 66 μg/m3 and 59 μg/m3, respectively.  WHO report finds India and China among the worst performers in air quality. In fact, Beijing and New Delhi have been neck to neck in PM2.5 concentrations but of late the Chinese capital has shown improvements.

The dense concentration of PM2.5, in the presence of a deadly cocktail of other gases and unburned carbon particles, create a photochemical smog that lingers on due to the meteorological conditions during winters. These fine particles (PM2.5) pose a major threat to human health as they not only can settle deep in the lungs, but also enter the human bloodstream and can potentially lead to heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer, cause heart. In 2015, PM2.5 contributed to over 4.2 million deaths worldwide with 52 percent of these deaths occurring in India and China (1.1 million deaths in each country).  Globally, exposure to ozone related pollution is responsible for over 2,54,000 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) deaths. Approximately 71 percent of such deaths occur in India and China. According to the “Global Burden of Diseases” report, there has been a 17 percent increase in premature deaths attributable to PM2.5 in China since 1990, and the figure for India is three times more.

The challenge of addressing pollution is undeniable given the significant costs in terms of life years lost to premature deaths and disability. While evidence on ambient air pollution leading to serious illnesses is plentiful, disruption in ecosystem services are also well recognised. One such attempt pegged the agricultural losses in India to 50 percent relative yield loss in wheat production  owing to high concentration of short-lived climate pollutants. Another study found poor natural light has slowed down agricultural output. This could have detrimental consequences on the economies given that agriculture still contributes a large proportion of the GDP’s of both countries. It is also threatening wildlife havens for migratory birds and other animals in Delhi.

Industrial emission, transportation, open biomass burning and coal based power plants are some of the major sources of particulate pollution.  The rapid growth of automobiles and vehicular emissions have a cumulative impact on PM2.5 concentrations in both countries.  While the coal-based power plants are identified as important sources of ambient air pollution in China; Biomass burning is a major cause of air pollution in India.  Excessive use of firecrackers in India also causes deteriorations in air quality in a short span of time. Similarly, atmospheric suspension of dust particles from construction activities is another concern in cities.  All these sources cause lingering health and environmental effects throughout the year. Thus, the key to reducing air pollution lies in controlling emissions from these sources.

The growth trajectory of both the nations has been different and has sourced different emissions.  While China’s growth is mainly industry-led, India has achieved its high growth rates due to specialising in services. Therefore the kind of pollution abatement that is expected from both the sectors is also different. Studies have pointed out that technology transfer with tacit knowledge on emission reductions has extended its benefits to China’s manufacturing sector. Whereas India’s problems are related to the income-led consumerism.

Policy Measures

Acknowledging the threat, both the countries adopted a set of policies and regulation aimed at reducing emissions. The Environment Protection Law (in effect since January 2015) of China is one such initiative to reform and regulate environmental quality with several short-term targets. This has proven to be effective as resources can immediately be directed towards meeting short term goals, it is easier to monitor progress and unlike long-term targets, stakeholder interests are maintained.

China has specifically emphasized on effective stringent regulations of the industries (power plants) and on efforts to improve emission standards. Production activities in polluting industries such as steel and coal are now more sensitive to air quality standards. Often, production is curtailed to minimize emissions during specific seasons. Economic activities in the country are now increasingly diverting away from heavy industries and have been exploring alternatives for clean energy. Similarly, effective policies on vehicular emissions, traffic management, promoting electronic and hybrid vehicles, dust removal and green coverage have contributed towards the reduction of air pollution in the country. In the latest attempt, Xin Guobin, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology revealed that government is mulling over imposing a ban on production and sale of cars using traditional fuels.  With huge subsidies flowing in for the domestic automakers, the imposition of ban on petrol and diesel cars will be seen as government’s move to tap into its large domestic market for electric and plug-in hybrid cars.  China has also focused on systematic monitoring of air quality standards and has improved data sharing for effective citizen participation.

India has also been implementing effective regulations towards pollution control.  The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has specific focus on policies for promotion of clean technology, particularly the vehicular emissions. There are efforts for greater inter-sectoral coordination.  For instance, the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways has identified a number of initiatives to modernize vehicular fleet and promote eco-friendly transport.  Similarly, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) aims at providing clean cooking fuel (LPG) to safeguard the health of women and children. There are also several state-level policy efforts. For example, Delhi implemented traffic regulations (Odd-Even rule) to reduce vehicular emissions during phases of high pollution. Emphasis on CNG fuel is an important feature of vehicular transport in Delhi. Punjab has provisions for subsidizing equipment purchase that increase the usage of crop residues. Importantly, there is an increased emphasis on environmental statistics for quality monitoring which is actively discussed by stakeholders and the media.

In response to the deadly smog that covered the city last year, the Supreme Court enforced a graded response action plan. The plan involves a series of interventions that are to be enforced through coordination among neighbouring states and pollution agencies, depending on the severity of pollution. Initially, this plan was lauded and compared to several others that were implemented by governments across the globe. Unfortunately however, data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reveals that since its implementation, air quality has not met the WHO standards for even one day. This could be due to manpower, technical and institutional constraints faced by pollution agencies, which then prevent the full-scale enforcement of plans. Furthermore, the ban on sale of firecrackers in the capital that was passed last year by the Supreme Court due to the lasting impact it has on air quality and health of citizens, was lifted yesterday. The top court said that banning the sale was an “extreme step” and has restricted the sale of firecrackers to 500 shopkeepers along with certain other rules. This is a disappointing move given that extreme steps are indeed required to curb pollution levels in a city that has constantly been among the most polluted in the world. However, this is not to say that firecrackers alone cause poor air quality, but contribute to the pre-existing pollution levels.

Thus, while there may be a plethora of policies and strategies to tackle the air pollution issue in the capital – there has been little to no improvement in the air quality standards. India may have taken steps towards the reduction of air pollution, but has failed to display the kind of urgency that China has in recent years.

Potential for Sino-Indian Cooperation

Both India and China have drawn effective measures to improve air quality. While reasons for air pollution vary considerably, there are a myriad of similarities in the nature of challenges faced by the two countries. Therefore, several lessons can be learned and there is a great potential for bilateral cooperation between the countries in the area of pollution. Furthermore, since environmental challenges like air pollution transcend national boundaries, it is all the more crucial for the two neighbours to work together on this front.

At the recently concluded BRICS summit, in it’s declaration, China stressed on the importance of environmental cooperation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with “concrete actions to advance result-oriented cooperation in such areas as prevention of air and water pollution, waste management and biodiversity conservation”. Since China has made great strides in green technology, an area for cooperation with India can be through the sharing of such advanced technology, knowledge and experiences as well as ‘green practices’. There should also be greater exchange of real-time data between the two countries.

Like China, India should also aim for short-term targets and tighter deadlines. A key component for any plan to successfully work is accountability. Pollution boards, state governments and officials involved in the implementation process should be held accountable – awarded for good performance and penalised for poor performance. India can also borrow China’s innovative enforcement model i.e. the anti-smog police that patrols streets to keep a check on environmental rule violations. Involving citizens in such a process would not only lead to an increased sense of ownership but could also generate employment. Furthermore, it is important for the government to ensure that real time air quality data is readily available to the public. There have been major infrastructural lapses including missing and delayed data, as well as non-functional air quality monitoring stations. While such issues may seem trivial on the surface, they can have detrimental effects on the imposition of emergency measures (Such as the Graded Response Action Plan) that are contingent on the availability of this data.

While China may have some lessons to offer, given the multifaceted nature of air pollution, it would be futile to implement a ‘one size-fits all’ policy. As Fu Jihong, Deputy Director General of the Shanghai Municipal Foreign Affairs Office said “When it comes to environment protection, we must acknowledge that every city is different, with its own features and characteristics. The treatment of the environment must also take into consideration the specific needs of the city as well as the development requirements of the city.”

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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