Editor’s Note: Siddharth Singh is the author of “The Great Smog of India,” a book on India’s air pollution crisis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
When India’s Supreme Court ordered in November 2000 that polluting industries in Delhi’s residential areas be relocated outside of the city, the workers from those industries came out onto the streets in protest – fearful that they were about to lose their livelihoods.
The protests, which eventually turned violent, foreshadowed a battle that continues to play out across India today, as economic growth is pitted against environmental protections.
That’s because in modern India, polluting sectors continue to be important pillars of the economy.
For example, coal generates nearly three quarters of India’s total power.
The industry employs hundreds of thousands in thermal power plants, coal mines and supply chains across the country. Many argue that any attempt to transition away from coal would result in a widespread loss of jobs, along with an inexpensive and stable source of energy.
Similarly, much of India’s commercial transport is run on diesel. The idea of replacing diesel trucks and cars with cleaner electric powered vehicles is considered too expensive – especially for business owners who operate entire fleets.
The case is true for India’s manufacturing industry as well, as a transition from coal to natural gas would increase their operating costs, while pollution control technologies add to their fixed capital costs. Business owners fear becoming less competitive in an increasingly global market.
One of the largest contributors to air pollution in India, especially in the north of the country, is the agricultural sector. Every year, between October and November, thousands of farmers in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh states burn harvest residue as they prepare fields for the new crop. The practice, known as stubble burning, leads to a smoky haze forming in much of northern India.
Haze from stubble burning
The government has tried to encourage the use of green technology, such as so-called “Happy Seeder” machines that can sow seeds without having to first remove the agricultural residue. However, this has proven to be expensive, especially for small and marginal farmers.
Compared to spending on fuel and rental charges for these machines, simply setting the residue on fire will always prove to be cheaper.
Apart from causing more than a million deaths annually and imposing increased healthcare costs on the state, air pollution also leads to the loss of productivity as more people take sick days due to lung and cardio vascular illnesses. A study by the World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimated air pollution in India led to $55 billion in foregone labor in 2013.
Undoubtedly, the Indian economy remains locked into a way of doing things that results in significant harm to the environment.
But no matter bad the damage, the belief persists that any attempt to change the existing economic model would be bad for business, employment and growth.
This, however, need not be the case.
Creating jobs from cleaner energy
If the long-term cost of environmental derogation is considered and, if markets are created for clean technologies, a strong economic case could be made for a reduction in emissions.
With the creation of appropriate incentives and markets, cleaner solutions may find mass adoption. In fact, India already has experience with this. Take the case of LED bulbs. Encouraged by a government program that incentivized adoption, 360 million LED bulbs have been distributed or purchased in India since 2015.
This has led to an estimated 38 million tonnes of CO2 avoided and $2.5 billion saved every year compared to the use of an equivalent number of incandescent bulbs, according to India’s Ministry of Power.
Similarly, an innovative energy efficiency program for the most energy intensive Indian industries (including iron and steel, cement and textiles) called “Perform, Achieve, Trade” (PAT) has also led to energy, cost and emission reductions without impacting production or competitiveness adversely.
To target particulate matter emissions from industries specifically, there is another ongoing pilot program for a particulate matter emission trading scheme in the state of Gujarat. The idea is to create market-based incentives to encourage the reduction of pollutants from these industries.
The transition towards cleaner technologies will also generate investments and jobs. India’s successful renewable energy program that encouraged the expansion of solar and wind power capacity has triggered $42 billion in investments since 2014 and generated thousands of jobs, according to the Indian government. And by 2017, around 430,000 jobs had been created in India’s renewables sector, excluding large hydropower.
But opportunities lie in new markets.
With technology alone failing to address agricultural stubble burning, there are now growing calls for the creation of a market for this residue that would incentivize farmers to extract and sell it rather than to burn it. This residue can be used in various applications, including at power plants where it can be burned relatively cleanly.
To assuage concerns of air pollution action negatively affecting the economy, it will therefore be important to reframe the argument to highlight the costs of air pollution, combined with the economic benefits of transitioning to cleaner technologies.
This will create the necessary political acceptability for a faster transformation. With the creation of appropriate ecosystems and markets, coupled with strictly enforced air quality regulations, India can address air pollution – and build a sustainable and lasting economy that benefits future generations.