Insights into Editorial: For clean air, India needs a policy leap
For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, Air pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today. Its implications are many.
A report of the Lancet Commission on pollution and health states that around 19 lakh people die prematurely every year from diseases caused by outdoor and indoor air pollution.
A study by the Indian Journal of Pediatrics shows that the lungs of children who grow up in polluted environments like Delhi are 10% smaller compared to the lungs of children who grow up in the U.S. This is nothing short of a public health emergency. What is needed, therefore, is a comprehensive policy to curb pollution.
Main causes of Air pollution
At the heart of the problem of pollution are carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. About 75% of all greenhouse gas emissions are CO2 emissions produced through burning fossil fuels — oil, coal and natural gas — to generate energy.
- Since the early 2000s, carbon emissions have increased because of high growth in the Indian economy.
- In 2014, India’s total carbon emissions were more than three times the levels in 1990, as per World Bank data.
- This is because of India’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels and a dramatically low level of energy efficiency.
Effects of Air pollution
- In 2015, diseases caused by air, water & soil pollution were responsible for 9 million premature deaths, i.e. 16% of all global deaths. Exposures to contaminated air, water and soil kill more people than smoking, hunger, natural disasters, war, AIDS, or malaria.
- Pollution disproportionately kills the poor and the vulnerable.
- Children are at high risk of pollution-related disease, as exposures to even small amounts of certain chemicals in utero and in early infancy can result in disease, life-long disability and death.
- Almost all exposures to pollution are involuntary and represent a massive global injustice.
- Pollution is costly
- The costs attributed to pollution-related diseases will increase as researchers discover more associations between pollution & disease.
- Pollution-related diseases reduce GDP in low- to middle-income countries by up to 2% per year.
- The nature of pollution is changing
- Significant investments in improving access to safe water and sanitation have greatly reduced water pollution’s impact.
- However, modern forms of pollution from industry and transport are at a scale never seen before. These include outdoor air, chemical and soil pollution, and exposures in the workplace.
How can this crisis be solved?
Air pollution and climate change are closely linked and share common solutions.
Fossil fuel combustion in higher-income countries and the burning of biomass in lower-income countries accounts for 85% of airborne particulate pollution and is a major source of greenhouse gases and other pollutants that drive climate change.
Remodel the energy mix
Emissions can be curbed only if people are persuaded to move away from fossil fuels and adopt greener forms of energy.
- A part of the carbon revenue thus generated can be used for a systemic overhaul of the energy mix, which, to a large extent, would address the pressing problem of environmental degradation.
- The Indian economy’s energy mix needs to be remodelled through investments in clean renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and low-emissions bioenergy,
- Raise the level of energy efficiency through investments in building retrofits, grid upgrades, and industrial efficiency.
- Carbon tax can be a key policy instrument in helping the country meets the challenges posed by Air pollution.
There is, however, a problem with carbon tax. It’s regressive in nature — it affects the poor more than the rich.
What is the way out?
- ‘Tax and dividend’ policy:
According to which the revenue thus generated is distributed equally across its citizens and as a result, the poor are more than compensated for the loss, since in absolute amounts the rich pay more carbon tax than the poor.
Such a policy of cash transfer, which might work in the West, however, has a problem in the Indian context.
- Instead of a cash transfer, the other part of the carbon revenue can be used for an in-kindtransfer of free electricity to the population that contributes less carbon than the economy average, and universal travel passes to compensate for the rise in transport costs and to encourage the use of green public transport.
Such a policy justly addresses the widening schism between Bharat, which bears the climate impact burden, and India, which is imposing that burden because of its lifestyle choices.
The level of carbon tax required for this policy to come into effect is ₹2,818 per metric tonne of CO2. It will be levied upstream, namely, at ports, mine-heads, and so on. While the prices of almost all the commodities will rise, the highest rise in price will be in fuel and energy since the carbon content is the highest in this category.
- Carbon Tax policy not only curbs emissions but also delivers on providing more employment since the employment elasticity in greener forms of energy is higher than those in fossil fuel-based energy.
- Higher prices of commodities according to their carbon content will induce households, including the rich, to look for greener substitutes.
- Availability of free energy also addresses the issue of stealing of electricity, since there will be no incentive left for those who steal. In India, even in 2014, the value of electricity stolen through corrupt means amounts to about 0.8% of GDP.
- Policy also will give more health benefits as a significant part of more than 3% of India’s GDP currently spent on pollution-induced diseases will surely come down.
Reducing pollution presents a powerful opportunity to save lives and grow economies. Better way to curb pollution is to tax carbon. Accelerating the switch to cleaner sources of energy will reduce air pollution and improve human and planetary health.
Government also need to integrate pollution challenges and control strategies into planning processes. Collaborate on solving pollution with development agencies. Design and implement programs that reduce pollution, and save lives.