10 February 2015
As a developing country, India faces a dual and paradoxical challenge, viz, to reduce its carbon footprint from conventional sources of power while providing energy to all citizens
Several Chinese cities have been in the news over the past decade for blinding smog that made breathing difficult without surgical masks. Recently, New Delhi’s smog-laden air drew unfavourable attention due to the visit of US President Barack Obama for the Republic Day celebrations. American media reports said the US President’s two-hour long exposure at Rajpath and other outdoor events, such as tea in a well-appointed garden, took six hours off his life! While only god can authenticate such a fine calibration, it is undeniable that the capital’s air (not to mention water) quality has been deteriorating for decades.
On January 6, the US embassy’s air pollution monitor recorded Delhi’s particulate matter (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, that can penetrate human lungs) at 215 at 8am, which fell to 199 by 7pm. The US embassy is situated in Chanakyapuri, one of the capital’s most idyllic locations; it follows that readings elsewhere in the city would be much higher.
The benchmark is 150; any reading above is ‘unhealthy’ for general, non-sensitive populations (those not afflicted with asthma or other respiratory ailments). A reading above 200 is ‘very unhealthy’ and this is the air citizens are breathing this winter. Levels of 300 and above are ‘hazardous’.
Much of Delhi’s smog is due to vehicular emissions because a fully integrated public transport system is still not in place. In the country as a whole (no official statistics have been released) air pollution is rising dangerously, particularly in highly industrialised districts and zones. Worldwide, these pollutants contribute to global warming and climate change through ozone depletion, and now, pose a threat to the survival of species, including the human race. The crisis is so advanced that two degree celsius has become the de facto target for global warming.
As urgent remedial measures become imperative, Governments and citizens are exploring various options. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mooted fighting air pollution by implementing the Environmental Protection Agency’s international air quality forecasting system AirNow. This is part of an overall climate deal, to be clinched in Paris in March, that includes phasing out greenhouse gases such as hydrofluorocarbons (used in refrigerants), reducing dependence on coal (thermal power) and enhancing use of renewable sources of energy.