A recent World Health Organization (WHO) study ranks India as one of the most polluted countries in the world. India is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, with air pollution impacting more than half the population by reducing its lifespan by three years on average.
Among the various causes of pollution – burning of firewood, fuel adulteration, vehicle emissions – are coal-based power plants. They release particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds and trace metals like mercury into the air, which affect health adversely. Additionally, coal-fired power plants are the main source of acid-rain-producing pollutants.
A recent study of 47 thermal plants by the Centre for Science and Environment found that not only are India’s power units among the most inefficient in the world, they operate at an average of only 60%-70% of their installed capacity. It’s disturbing that more than half of India’s energy supply needs are met by coal-fired plants.
To take a stock of the rising air pollution levels, the incumbent government recently launched an Air Quality Index (AQI) to predict the air quality. Initially ten cities – Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Faridabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad will have monitoring stations with AQI display boards. In laymen terms, the index translates detailed information on different pollutants into a color-coded health warning system. Green represents minimal impact on health, yellow implies moderate effects and red would mean to have serious implications. There are plans to extend this initiative to a total of 66 cities eventually.
A long-term and feasible solution to control air pollution is to switch to natural gas for power generation. A higher share of natural gas in the installed capacity of energy from 9% in 2014 to 20% by 2030 is an imperative. Gas-based power stations have no particulate emissions and much lower NOx emissions. They can achieve 20 parts per million (PPM) NOx levels whereas coal-based power stations have no standards; they emit between 100 PPM and 300 PPM.
Another alternative is to use vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Over the past few years, CNG became the most popular fuel due price difference and a large number of petrol cars have been retro-fitted to run on CNG. Studies have shown that CNG is much more environment friendly in terms of carbon emissions and pollutants like SO2. Running car on green fuel will help to keep a check on air pollution in city like Mumbai, where the use of vehicles are primarily responsible for deteriorating air quality.
India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US. The data can be used for tackling pollution proactively and prudently. Like for example, on consecutive days of high pollution levels, Beijing restricts driving cars. Furthermore, Paris allows free public transportation on days with high pollution. India too can embrace such initiative to bring down the pollutions levels