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Will clean air sustain past the COVID Crisis?

The journey into the year 2020 definitely has been a rough ride for the whole world due to the prevalence of the global health crisis. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as global healthcare, social, and economic calamity, it has brought a healing dose for the repairment of nature.

Air quality improved from COVID-19 lockdown
Image Source: PTI Photo/Kamal Singh

Some of its splendid impacts on nature were evident in the Indian Subcontinent too. When the nation went into a complete lockdown as a precaution to alleviate the rising number of corona positive cases, a drastic reduction in human activities went on to heal the country’s environment.

When we humans stayed indoors, stalling industrial production, halting construction work, and causing less vehicular emission on the roads hence inflicting less burden for energy consumption on the thermal power plants, we created unprecedented opportunities for breathing the cleanest air interestingly, in a country which is home to some of the most air-polluted cities in the world.

The levels of air pollutants like PM 2.5, PM 10, SO2, and NOx experienced a substantial decline in atmospheric concentration with each subsequent phase of lockdown.

The sighting of Dhauladhar Ranges from Jalandhar, Everest peaks from Sitamarhi or in general breathing fresh air has become the ‘new normal’ for the country within the 4 months of the lockdown due to such improved air quality. The question is how can we expect this to change post the COVID phase?

Back to Old times?

“Air quality improvements witnessed in India during lockdown were temporary, and as the restrictions ease, air pollution will go back to usual levels as nothing has structurally changed about the source”, explains Dr. Santosh Harish, a fellow at Centre for Policy research. Despite the strong certainty of getting back to the usual pollution levels, it will be eccentric to see the country recreating the same atmosphere we have been suffering from for a long time.

After ‘complete unlock’, the resumed construction activities, inadequate disposal and incineration of municipal waste, and vehicular mobilization on roads will inevitably increase the particulate (PM 2.5 and PM 10) pollution in the atmosphere. Additionally, the irresponsible production from industrial units, unethical farming practices (including stubble burning), and towering demands for power production will surely entail a poisonous black smoke mixture of gases like SO2, NOx, CO, etc. into the environment.

As per the 2017 report on India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative published by The Lancet, out of the total 1.24 million deaths recorded in 2017, 12.5% could be attributed to air pollution. Furthermore, a report published at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in 2018 provided evidence for the presence of tiny dust particles in the bloodstreams of infants in vulnerable areas suggesting translation of air pollution from the mother’s placenta.

When the nation saw 1,95,546 children losing lives to air pollution-related diseases in the single year of 2017, we must understand the need for sustaining the clean air this crisis has created.

Probability of Drastic Deterioration 

Although the previous year statistics of air pollution and its effects in India are very brutal, some policies adopted/proposed by the administration could have additional vigorous impacts on air quality deterioration.

“The Union Government’s efforts to dilute environmental safeguards under the guise of economic recovery or improving the ‘ease of doing business’, is deeply concerning”, points out Dr. Harish. We must note that the Union Government’s widely criticized steps on diluting the Environmental Impact Assessment and conducting coal mines auctioning in the biodiversically sensitive areas will have a long term impact on the air quality of the country.

Moreover, the nation largely depends on fossil energy to fulfill its power requirements hence is calling for more comprehension in handling these resources, still controlling bodies fail to submit the timely statistics of the contaminants. In spite of the CPCB mandating the thermal power plants to submit compliance reports on the quality of byproducts they generate, these may see a delay due to the COVID crisis. “There may potentially be efforts to further delay compliance to the SO2 and NOx standards for coal power plants despite extended deadlines”, suggests Dr. Harish on the same.

To add to the problem, the government’s oath to install 100GW of solar energy by 2022 might get impacted due to lockdown, economic decline, and reduced imports from China since the beginning of the year. This may pose a challenge in minimizing the dependence on non-renewable sources of energy for power consumption.

For the sustenance of the citizens’ health and creating a cleaner environment, the administration should put cognizance on the fact that the environment demands more sustainable methods, not the degrading ones. Capitalism without inclusivity to the environment is futile and degenerative for humans, the economy, and the atmosphere.  

A Sustainable Approach to Mitigation

“There is certainly a scope to build better and work towards improved air quality”, expresses Dr. Harish optimistically. The recent advancements to increase LPG subsidies in the poorest households and the increased rate of shifting from paddy cultivation to sustainable crops in Punjab and Haryana are certain sustainable measures taken to combat the air crisis in India. Besides, the country’s assertiveness towards generating a substantial amount of energy through solar power is a commendable initiative. But to overcome such a huge problem, these steps won’t be sufficient.

India needs to emerge as a circular economy by intelligently removing waste and using resources accountably. We need to design sustainable cities and communities with the creation of opportunities for green jobs, institutions, and sustainable lifestyles. The country needs to adopt sustainable infrastructure(dust-free roads, no particulate construction, etc.) and advanced mobility transport systems with fewer carbon emissions. A coordinated airshed management technique can play a vital role in tracking the pollutants throughout the subcontinent.

We as a country, also need to promote healthy cultivational and industrial techniques to promote development without excessive exploitation of resources. Promoting zero-carbon energy pan India is an essential step towards reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. We also must comprehend the fact that combating the sky-high rural pollution levels is as essential as urban pollution.

Dr. Harish speaking about the NCAP grants suggested, “the National Clean Air Programme and the recently announced 15th Finance Commission grants linked to the air quality of 42 cities have been seemingly unaffected by the fiscal crisis. We need to make sure that these funds are effectively used to create sustainable infrastructure in these cities.” 

We have to decide our future

“The lockdown gave us a peek into how our skies could look if serious mitigation efforts are undertaken. However, these improvements came with enormous economic and sustainable hardship. We don’t need lockdowns to achieve clean air”, says Dr. Harish  

As we are moving into every new phase of unlocking from COVID-19 lockdown, the AQI is seen to be increasing suggesting the deterioration of air quality. After surviving a major health crisis, we don’t want to create space for another one right? 

Therefore, we at any possible level should adopt and promote a sustainable approach to doing things. Pollutant concentration in air cannot be reduced in just a few months, we need to slowly but strategically work on barring the entry of these contaminants in the air. Every small step is important to design the future we want for ourselves, we just need to rethink and enact.

(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.) 

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