Technology alone isn’t the solution: on the air pollution crisis

Explaining urban air pollution:

  • Urban air pollution refers largely to the mixture of gases and small particles in the lowest hundred or so metres, a result of human activity associated with vehicles, road dust, domestic cooking and heating, power plants and other industries nearby, diesel generator sets, and the open burning of waste.
  • In Delhi, in recent weeks, concentrations of particulates below 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre in size, which settle deep in the lungs, were 22 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard.
  • In November 2016, they were 16 times the standard. Other cities are slightly better, but still worse than the standard.
  • Polluting gases are mostly colourless and odourless and include carbon monoxide, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, ozone, and volatile organic compounds.
  • Monitoring air pollution requires well-calibrated and spatially well-represented networks of measurement equipment, which do not exist in most parts of India.
  • It is logical to expect things to get worse before they improve. Air pollution depends on meteorological factors, but primarily on how much is emitted.
  • This is the number of polluters times the rate of emissions per source. In principle, the amount of pollution from each brick kiln, truck or two-wheeler, car, power plant or field can be estimated. The total pollution is the sum of all the activities times the pollution per activity.
  • We already know that the number of polluters will rise with population and economic growth. The trick has been to try to find ways to reduce the emissions per activity, referred to as emissions intensity.
  • Emissions intensity can be divided into technological and non-technological elements. In cars, for instance, engine technology that uses less polluting fuels could improve efficiency.
  • Cars now offer the tantalising prospect of reducing emissions intensity to zero, with battery and other energy-storage technologies. But it will take at least three decades for the current fleet to turn over sufficiently towards zero-emission vehicles, before their contribution to air pollution reduces significantly.
  • However, this is not sufficient if the total number of cars increases or people drive a lot more.
  • It is vital, therefore, to pay attention to non-technological aspects such as urban planning, to reduce driving, and to increase cycling, walking, and use of public transport.
  • The need for travel may also have to go down by voluntary reductions in consumption, not viewed as loss of welfare but rather as opportunities to enhance leisure time, health, and recreation. This would be a reduction in activity, not just in emissions intensity.

Policies needed:

  • It would be criminal to ignore the plight of millions who are likely to have severely compromised lives because of excessive air pollution.
  • Using the best available technologies for various sources is absolutely essential. Other ways of reducing emissions intensity are also needed.
  • But, it is just as important to take back urban space for use by people, not their machines. This would mean a great reimagining and rethinking of urban space with expanded walking, non-motorised cycling, waterways, and footpaths.
  • Many cities in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas have shown how this can be done, and several Indian mayors and bureaucrats are already familiar with these models.
  • There are also opportunities to reduce polluting activities in other sectors such as power generation and industrial production. This would mean reducing emissions intensity, but also avoiding certain activities or substituting them with others. Such approaches also offer co-benefits such as improved health, reduced carbon emissions and new forms of collaboration across social class.
  • Policymakers now rely almost entirely on technology, technologists and technocratic views by economists for policymaking, thus offering a limited view of the problem and its solutions.
  • They also need to overcome the corruptive and overwhelming influence of motor vehicle manufacturers, power producers, developers, and other large stakeholders on decisions taken.
  • While small changes in a few cities and some protests have been seen, other transformative movements are needed by voters in partnership with social institutions to take back urban space.
  • There are many reasons why there could be political support for policies to promote more democratically driven land use and transport.
  • Mainly, this is because alliances can potentially be made across many social classes.
  • Unlike water pollution, where the better off can buy or use filtered water, the rich cannot pay their way out of air pollution. While they may not be as exposed to the worst levels suffered by the very poor living in informal settlements on roadsides, filters and hermetically sealed living spaces offer only temporary reductions and the fantasy of clean air.
  • In fact, ozone, a dangerous air pollutant, can eat into filters, just as badly as it can destroy the lungs of even healthy youth.
  • It is not ethically appropriate to delay the resolution of deadly air pollution in cities for an entire generation that would suffer greatly in the interim.
  • If there are sustainable modes that are worth pursuing, why not have more living laboratories of such social experiments around land use and transport?


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