UPSC CSE Mains Syllabus: GS-3- Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment .
Tackling Air pollution – Post COVID
- Clean air is a basic human right and yet air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health. This is true especially of India.
- In 2017, 3.4 million people died prematurely as a result of outdoor air pollution which makes 6% of global deaths. The share for India was 8.26%.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) ranked New Delhi as the world’s most polluted city in 2014.
- The Covid-19 pandemic made urban air pollution a highly visible problem.
- As cities declared lockdowns, people in many highly-polluted cities saw the blue skies and many of them realised for the first time what the world might look like if the air was clean.
- Public perception surveys since the pandemic reveal that fresh air has caused many to reconsider a return to “normal”.
Public perception on air pollution:
- There’s a clear demand for greener spaces in cities, increased public transportation, work from home and penalising the polluters.
- The sharp drop in air pollution during the pandemic has also created a greater awareness of the health impacts and vulnerability to threats like Covid-19 due to airborne pollutants.
- While India develops its economic recovery plans, it is essential to include measures to reduce air pollution.
- The lockdown has shown us how quickly the air could be cleaned up if major pollution sources are properly controlled.
- However, to make such positive change permanent we need to start addressing the sources of air pollution at a systemic level.
Automotive emissions – an area of obvious concern is:
- The drastic drop in transport emissions during the lockdown was evident when cities across India recorded a 65-70% reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NOx) concentrations—a pollutant directly attributable to internal combustion engines.
- At the same time, India has the world’s second-largest road network, and with the current rate of growth, the total number of vehicles is projected to double by 2030.
- A chronic point of contention has been the expansion of roads to accommodate more cars.
- Cars are an inefficient mode of transport and use of public space as they waste over 50% of their carrying capacity and are parked for almost 90% of the time.
- Doubling car numbers could bring even more unbearable traffic, air pollution and expensive additional road infrastructure.
- The two- and three-wheelers now account for nearly 84% of the county’s annual auto sales and road transport volume.
- They fare much better on carrying capacity as well—especially three-wheelers used in public transport. The electric rickshaws, have emerged as a clear winner for the last-mile connectivity and their fares are also 30% cheaper.
- Electric public transport is also India’s long-term focus.
- Taking inspiration from Delhi’s excellent metro rail, Pune, Navi Mumbai and Nagpur are now also developing their own metro lines.
- Commuter convenience can be further enhanced by state governments expanding their fleets of electric buses and introducing regulations and incentives for electric rickshaws, taxis and city delivery vehicles.
- They all have zero on-road emissions, are cheaper to access, and significantly more efficient in moving people around than private cars.
- In terms of micro-mobility, studies suggest that 71% of all trips in India happen within a radius of 5 km. These can be easily serviced by electric two- and three-wheelers, which can do several runs per charge at a low cost, even with standard battery packs of 70-80 km capacity.
- They can operate in addition to a focus on urban redesign that includes more bicycle lanes.
- The programmes such as CyclesforChange, launched jointly in Chennai by the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy (ITDP) and the Centre’s ministry of housing and urban affairs to encourage more intra-city bicycle trips, are essential steps in the right direction.
What the government should do:
- As part of state EV policies, state governments should incentivise that charging stations and battery swapping points are powered by renewable energy.
- The United Kingdom and other countries are introducing the practice of charging stations declaring what the energy source is.
- In India, some states like Telangana and Tamil Nadu, are already setting an example with reduced power tariffs for the EV charging infrastructure.
- Policies for ambitious electrification of city transport could also have a strong economic benefit by boosting battery and electric vehicle production.
- It can create demand that would catalyse the National Mission on Transformative Mobility and Battery Storage and move India forward in the fierce global competition in the field of energy storage and new mobility.
Overall, the response to recovering after the pandemic has shown that local, collective action has the power to enforce change. A truly green recovery should allow people to avail the cleanest, most affordable modes of travel, which is where e-mobility and public transit solutions are important. With on-road economics starting to tilt irreversibly in their favour, governments would thus do well to prioritise demand-side funding of new mobility over business-as-usual.
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