Due to the inter-relation between the two, issues concerning climate change and poor air quality ought to be dealt concurrently with the application of policies and procedures that have been designed in an integrated fashion.
THE alterations taking place in the natural world are becoming patently obvious to all of us. Erratic weather patterns, rising sea levels and melting glaciers due to climate change are reshaping societies across the globe, and this holds true for India too. Global warming induced by human activity is predicted to be around 1.0°C over pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. If current trends continue, global warming will likely hit 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052.
Climate change has an impact on air pollution, and air pollution, in turn, has an impact on climate change. As a result, climate change may have an impact on local air quality. Thus, rising greenhouse gas emissions as well as deteriorating air quality have further exacerbated this problem.
This article examines the connection between air pollution and climate change, as well as the policy responses in India to this inter-connected problem.
Climate change and air pollution are inextricably linked. The main source of carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions — the exploitation and burning of fossil fuels — is also a major source of air pollution. Furthermore, many air pollutants contribute to climate change by influencing the quantity of incoming sunlight reflected or absorbed by the atmosphere, with some pollutants warming the Earth and others cooling it.
The main source of carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions — the exploitation and burning of fossil fuels — is also a major source of air pollution. Furthermore, many air pollutants contribute to climate change by influencing the quantity of incoming sunlight reflected or absorbed by the atmosphere, with some pollutants warming the Earth and others cooling it.
Methane, black carbon, ground-level ozone and sulphate aerosols are examples of short-lived climate-forcing pollutants (‘SLCPs’). They have a huge impact on the climate: after CO2, black carbon and methane are among the leading contributors to global warming. The presence of ozone in the atmosphere has a warming influence on the climate; black carbon, a combustion-derived particulate pollution, contributes to the warming of the Earth, whereas particulate sulphates serve to cool the Earth’s atmosphere. Changes in weather patterns as a result of climate change may also have an effect on the movement, dispersion, deposition and production of air pollutants in the atmosphere. Last but not the least, an increase in temperature, for example, will lead to an increase in the emissions of biogenic volatile organic compounds.
Two birds, one stone
Due to the inter-relation between the two, issues concerning climate change and poor air quality ought to be dealt concurrently with the application of policies and procedures that have been designed in an integrated fashion. These integrated strategies would avoid the negative feedback of climate on air quality, or vice versa, that has already been proven as a result of climate change; for instance, the detrimental effects on air quality caused by the subsidisation of diesel vehicles (which emit less CO2) but more particulate matter (‘PM’) and nitrogen oxides, or NOx, as well as the increased usage of biomass combustion without sufficient emission controls.
Rapid CO2 emission reductions are essential, but not sufficient, to reach the Paris Agreement objective of keeping warming to 1.5 (or even 2) °C. The importance of considerable reductions in emissions of non-CO2 climate forcers, particularly the air pollutants methane and black carbon, is emphasised in the United Nations’ (‘UN’) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on the implications of 1.5°C global warming. Furthermore, while economic decarbonization will lower CO2 and air pollution emissions in general, pursuing the phaseout of fossil fuels is insufficient — for air quality or climate. To begin with, emissions from other sectors are important: methane and black carbon emissions from agriculture, for example, have significant health and climate implications, while coolant emissions (especially hydrofluorocarbons) from the cooling industry are extremely effective climate warmers.
By acting concurrently on climate and air pollution, we can take advantage of synergies between the Paris Agreement climate targets and the UN Sustainable Development Goals in order to enhance lives now, and minimise future climate warming.
Second, it is necessary to consider both CO2 and air pollutants when designing and selecting climate and air quality solutions to guarantee that the anticipated advantages are realised. Some climate-friendly technologies, such as the combustion of biomass and other biofuels for home heating and transportation, may emit more particulate matter, particularly black carbon, than the technology they replace, causing continued harm to human health, and perhaps warming the planet.
In addition to contributing to the limitation of global warming, strong reductions in methane, black carbon and ground-level ozone have other important benefits for sustainable development. Reducing SLCPs is critical for slowing down the rate of climate change over the next several decades, and for protecting the people and regions most vulnerable to near-term climate impacts. In 2013, the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development had released a primer on SLPCs which explained their detrimental effects. SLCPs contribute almost 40-45 per cent of climate emission, and as their atmospheric lifetime ranges between only a few days to a decade, it is important and essential to tackle them aggressively to mitigate climate change faster.
By acting concurrently on climate and air pollution, we can take advantage of synergies between the Paris Agreement climate targets and the UN Sustainable Development Goals in order to enhance lives now, and minimise future climate warming. Recognising the interdependencies, there was responses at a global level early on in 2012 when the UN Environment Programme and six countries formed the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants to pool resources and maximise the co-benefits of mitigation measures. While the coalition is global in scope, initiatives undertaken help raise awareness about SLCPs, and improve and expand national and regional actions.
In the early 1970s, the harmful effects of anthropogenic activities on our natural resources were becoming more apparent to the general public. Therefore, during the UN General Assembly on Human Environment that was held in Stockholm in June 1972, a resolution was passed that urged the nations of the world to preserve natural resources such as air.
Giving effect to the decisions taken at the Stockholm Conference, India enacted the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 (‘Air Act’) as a special law to prevent and control the harmful effects of air pollution. This Act is seen as the first concrete step taken by the Indian government to combat air pollution. The key regulatory trigger in the Act is Section 19, which allows state governments to notify areas as “air pollution control” areas, ban fuel use, or burn other material. Section 20 empowers the State Government to issue instructions to Motor Vehicle Registration authorities regarding enforcement of emission standards laid down by the State Pollution Control Board. The State Board can grant consent to establish or operate industry(s) in an air pollution control area.
The Air Act was enacted four decades ago and it has not amended much since then. Thus, the Act does not address climate change expressly, which has been a major drawback in the legal framework.
According to a review of India’s energy and climate policies by the International Energy Agency, current air pollution and climate initiatives, if completely implemented, might improve air quality, but are insufficient to achieve the levels suggested by the World Health Organization.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has, from time to time, issued regulations in relation to emission control for specific industries. This has, however, been met with implementational challenges. For instance, India introduced new emission standards for thermal power plants in 2015, as per which thermal power plants were given two years’ time to implement technologies which would assist them in maintaining the said norms. Technologies such as Flue Gas De-sulphurisation, SOx and NOx controller, among others, were to be installed in the thermal power plants, but unfortunately there has been a constant delay in taking these steps. Recently, on May 3, the Union Ministry of Power has sought further extension of the deadline by two years.
In January 2019, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had launched the National Clean Air Program (‘NCAP’). It is a comprehensive strategy with actions to prevent, control and reduce air pollution, and improve air quality monitoring across the country. The Programme aims to reduce fine particulate (PM2.5) and particulate (PM10) air pollution by 20–30 per cent by 2024. 122 cities have been identified, and city specific action plans are being formulated. Ostensibly, action taken under this policy would also address impacts of climate change. NCAPrecommends that these Clean Air Action Plans are formalised and planned in alignment with the already existing policies such as the National Solar Mission, the National Action Plan on Climate Change, and other such policies.
The various policies and strategies adopted by India reflect an effort towards mitigation of climate change and air pollution, but there is room for improvement and adopting measures which will add to the progress. According to a review of India’s energy and climate policies by the International Energy Agency, current air pollution and climate initiatives, if completely implemented, might improve air quality, but are insufficient to achieve the levels suggested by the World Health Organization.
Policymakers must recognise that there are synergies between air pollution and climate policy objectives in numerous areas. Otherwise, both the benefits of anti-air pollution and anti-climate change policies will be devalued. Incorporating these synergies into the design and implementation of future policy frameworks will result in a more effective response to the nation’s most pressing health and environmental challenges, as well as provide a significant opportunity for India to contribute to the global fight against climate change. India needs to have a proper plan mapped out for how it will phase out its dependency on fossil fuel, especially coal. This has clear implications in relation to air quality.
There is also a need to look into agricultural policies and have specific strategies in place, since it is a major contributor to deteriorating air quality. This is especially true in the agriculture-dependent northern states where crop residue is burnt due to a lack of effective alternatives for the farmer communities. There needs to be awareness building mechanisms about existing government policies which would support and encourage moving away from such unsustainable practices, such as machine banks.
Another major sector which needs special focus is green financing. There needs to be a more focus and understanding of the ESG pillars (Environment, Social and Governance). The financial sector has an important role to play in the fight against climate change by supporting reductions in climate change risk and mitigating the impact of adverse climate events.
Suggested approach going forward
The relationship between air quality and climate change highlights the fact that addressing one or the other requires collaborative and multi-level policy solutions with the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders to be effective and sustainable. Severe air pollution in cities is a result of rapid urbanisation, which is accompanied by increasing energy demands, transportation and population. This places pressure on cities to be efficient in their urban development processes, hence sustaining their economic growth.
Cities must strive to strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation. This makes it even more crucial for decision-makers and municipal governments to develop policies and support measures to combat air pollution and climate change. Cities are consequently at a crucial juncture to address air pollution as a cross-cutting issue and to respond locally to climate change, a global concern.
Policymakers must recognise that there are synergies between air pollution and climate policy objectives in numerous areas. Incorporating these synergies into the design and implementation of future policy frameworks will result in a more effective response to the nation’s most pressing health and environmental challenges, as well as provide a significant opportunity for India to contribute to the global fight against climate change.
State governments must come up with plans and mitigation measures which are suitable and conducive to their states and cities as the landscape keep changing in India. A mitigation measure which could work for one state might not work for the other. For example, in Punjab and Haryana, policy solutions must necessarily revolve around agricultural residue burning, whereas in Delhi, the main focus shifts to addressing road dust, construction debris and vehicular emissions.
At the national level, it might do well for the government of India to focus on mainstreaming climate change into the existing laws and policies. The constitutional authority to adopt climate-related framework legislation is manifestly present. There is demonstrated history for using international accords to enact domestic environmental legislation under Article 253 of the Constitution. Alternately, a national framework law is possible under Article 248‘s residual powers reserved for the Centre. For instance, the Ozone Depleting Substance (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 can serve as a template for domestic laws addressing global, rather than only domestic, environmental concerns.