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Needed: An Integrated Framework

Needed: An Integrated Framework

To combat air pollution and climate change, India needs to have an integrated strategy towards both, through interlinked government programmes.

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

Our world is on the cusp of an environmental crisis—the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Air pollution and climate change are two environmental challenges that we cannot ignore. More than 90 per cent of the global population is breathing polluted air. In developing countries, the problem is more serious. Due to dependency on traditional fuels, inefficient technologies and limitations on access to clean energy and capacities for enforcement of standards, air pollution levels in developing countries are found to be extremely high.

In India, more than 70 per cent of cities do not meet the prescribed national standards for air quality. Implications are severe as an average person in the world is losing 2.2 years of life due to air pollution. For India, estimates show that about 1.67 million people die annually due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

To add to this, increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are continuously making the world warmer. These gases have led to 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900 and is expected to reach 1.5°C or even 2°C in the short term, unless immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in emissions are being made. This is leading to increasing heat waves, intense rainfall, more intense floods and drought, sea level rise, and melting of glaciers, which are detrimentally affecting human society.

Based on the magnitude of their impact, we have to halt and reverse this march towards increasing air pollution and climate change.

The fact is that air pollution and climate change are the two sides of the same coin. Both are primarily caused by energy-based emissions. Continued reductions in both air pollutants and GHG emissions are essential and to our benefit; air quality and climate change management policies can be mutually beneficial. Interventions such as clean air measures can help in reduction of warming by control over short-lived climate pollutants (like black carbon particles, methane and ground level ozone). On the other hand, efforts to reduce long-lived GHG emissions may successfully and effectively end up reducing air pollution. It is evident that solutions to control air pollution and climate change are largely overlapping. For instance, India’s adoption of Euro-VI equivalent vehicle emission standards will not only reduce vehicular pollution but will also lead to reduced carbon dioxide, black carbon and precursors to ground-level ozone, and hence, contribute towards climate change control. Similarly, renewable energy options, primarily designed for reducing GHG footprint, will also contribute to reducing pollution caused by coal-based power generation.

There is considerable interest as well as a need to understand the co-benefits of managing air pollution and climate change. Integrated management through strategies that provide benefits for both in a cost-optimised manner and the shortest possible time frames is the need of the hour. Research on co-benefits shows that climate policies which also tackle air pollution can generate additional environmental, health, social and economic benefits. But designing policies to combat climate change is complicated when predicting the complex interactions governing changes in climate and air pollutants.

There are multiple benefits of integrating efforts for mitigating emission sources of air pollution and climate change. First, it can provide a more comprehensive and stronger basis for drafting stringent policies for control. For example, the argument to shift to renewables or more energy efficient industrial technologies would be more compelling with inclusion of local air quality benefits along with global gains due to GHG reduction. Second, it can lead to more holistic and cost-effective planning of measures, which can provide co-benefits. Strategies can be prioritised based on their overall benefits and cost-efficiencies.

Third, it can avoid duplication of efforts and help build more synergies within the institutions responsible for control of two issues. Fourth, it can lead to enhanced national and global ambitions for control of two issues.

Considering the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and India’s recent commitments at COP26, its ambition of National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) can be raised significantly. A TERI study showed that just by moving to the NDC trajectory, India will reduce its PM2.5 pollution by 13 per cent. And finally, it can enable development of technologies that can simultaneously ensure higher efficiencies and low pollutant emissions.

With similar sources, overlapping impacts and co-benefits of measures to control, climate change and air pollution ought to fall within the ambit of an integrated regulatory framework. The National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) and the NCAP are the government’s two flagship programmes to tackle GHG emissions and air pollution, respectively. They individually focus on different strategies and are not interlinked.

An integrated approach to control air pollution and climate change will help India enhance its ambitions and achieve faster results. An assessment can be done for the strategies listed in the two programmes for evaluation of co-benefits, and prioritisation. As a step in this direction, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has recently endorsed the development of a ‘National Action Plan for the fast mitigation of Short-Lived Climate Pollutants’, which will link up to NAPCC as well as NCAP. The work is supported by the UNEP-hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

India is progressively taking steps to move forward for the two different agendas to become one. While domestically activities under NCAP are being implemented at different levels, globally, the commitments at COP26 are a step in the right direction. Integrated together, these efforts can provide an ambitious approach towards the daunting tasks of controlling air pollution and climate change.

Right now is the time for an integrated fight against air pollution and climate change, which could hopefully lead to the tipping point towards the mitigation of both.

(Atul Bagai is the head of United Nations Environment Programme Country Office in India)

Published on: Feb 14, 2022, 5:53 PM IST
Posted by: Vivek Dubey, Feb 14, 2022, 5:43 PM IST