India wants more electricity and needs more power plants to get it, but the government is not enforcing the pollution standards it needs to on these plants.
The result is that north Indiaâ€™s air is becoming more toxic with little hope for improvement unless the government cracks down on polluting power plants and enforces a variety of other pollution-control measures.
Indiaâ€™s sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissionsâ€“due toÂ burningÂ of coalâ€“increased 50% while Chinaâ€™s emissions fell 75% since 2007, according to a study by the University of Maryland and the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released on November 9, 2017.
Globally, China and India are the largest consumers of coal, and India will surpass China as the worldâ€™s largest emitter of SO2.
â€śSevere haze is a major public health concern in China and India. Both countries rely heavily on coal for energy, and SO2Â emitted from coal-fired power plants and industry is a major pollutant contributing to their air quality problems,â€ť the study said.
The share of coal in electricity generation in India is aboutÂ 72%,Â and has remained largely the same over the last three years, according to thisÂ replyÂ to the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) on August 10, 2017.
The quantity of coal consumed by power plants has increased 74% over the last 10 years from 330 millionÂ tonneÂ in 2007-08 to 574.9 millionÂ tonneÂ in 2016-17.
Source:Â Lok Sabha/Central Electricity Authority of India
â€śIndiaâ€™s failure to implement emission control standards for coal-fired power plants is leading to severe air pollution levels,â€ť Aishwarya Sudhir, an independent researcher on air quality, toldÂ IndiaSpend.
Delhi has 13 coal-fired power plants within a 300-kilometre radius operating with no emission controls to regulate SO2Â and nitrogen dioxide that contribute to the surge in particulate matter level, Sudhir said.
SO2Â emission load in Delhi is estimated to be 141Â tonneÂ per day, according to this January 2016Â reportÂ by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur. Industrial sources account for more than 90% of total emission, mostly from power plants.
Burning of coal for electricity leads to increased SO2Â emissions
BurningÂ of coal leads to large SO2Â emissions, a toxic air pollutant, that formsÂ sulfateaerosols, a major contributor to
the current haze in India and China. The pollutant causes over one million premature deaths every year, the MarylandÂ studyÂ said.
â€śImpact ofÂ sulfurÂ dioxide emissions in India are limited asÂ SO2Â concentration is relatively low over the densely populated Indo-Gangetic Plain. But this may change as the demand for electricity continues to grow.â€ť
Emission of SO2Â concentrations haveÂ increasedÂ inIndia between 2005 and 2016, largely attributed to coal-fired power plants in the states of Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, the report said. The â€śhotspotsâ€ť have also increased on the west coast.
Source:Â NASA; Credits: NASAâ€™s Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen
The ozone monitoring instrument on NASAâ€™s Aura satellite reflects the change in SO2concentrations in India and China between 2005 and 2016. Despite the increase in coal consumption by 50% and electricity generation by 100% between 2005 and 2016, SO2Â levels in China have reduced. The decrease in SO2Â levels isÂ attributedÂ to stricter pollution control measures, shift toÂ non coal-basedÂ energy sources and the recentÂ slowdown ofÂ the Chinese economy.
Chinaâ€™s biggest success has been the installation of basic pollution abatement equipment on a majority (95%) of thermal power plants compared to only 10% of Indian power plants,Â IndiaSpendÂ reportedÂ on November 21, 2016.
About 13 million people in India were exposed to >0.5Â dobsonÂ units (DU) of SO2Â in 2013, which more than doubled (154%) to 33 million in 2016. In contrast, people exposed to >0.5 DU of SO2Â in China declined 78% from 457 million in 2013 to 99 million in 2016.
Source: Scientific Reports; University of Maryland and NASA study.
Long way off to curb pollution levels in north India with rising power demand
â€śIndiaâ€™s increased sulfur dioxideÂ emissionsÂ are not causing as many health or haze problems as they do in China because the largest emission sources are not in the most densely populated area of India,â€ť according to Can Li, an associate research scientist in the University of Marylandâ€™s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and NASAâ€™s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. â€śHowever, as demand for electricity grows in India, the impact may worsen.â€ť
India is yet toÂ electrifyÂ forty million households that would requireÂ additionalÂ power of about 28,000Â mega-wattÂ and additional energy of about 80,000 million units per annum. About 13% or 2,457 villages of 18,452 unelectrified villages are yet to be electrified as on November 14, 2017, according to governmentâ€™s real-timeÂ GARV dashboard.
With over 70% of the countryâ€™s electricity generation dependent on thermal power and increasing demand, bringing down pollution levels in Indiaâ€™s northern states seem to be a long way off.
Power plants or combustion of coal are not the only factors leading to toxic air in Delhi and its surrounding areas.
The top four contributors to particulate matter (PM) 2.5 emissions in Delhi are road dust (38%), vehicles (20%), domestic fuel burning (12%) and industrial point sources (11%) based on annual emissions, according to to the IIT KanpurÂ study.
Reducing burning of straw or stubble and other biomass in neighbouring states of Delhi could improve air quality by 90%,Â IndiaSpendÂ reportedÂ on October 17, 2017.
NASA released satellite images of active crop fires in Punjab and surrounding areas, on October 25, 2017, followed by skies covered with thick and smog on November 8, 2017, indicatingÂ riseÂ in pollution levels in north India,Â IndiaSpendÂ reportedÂ on November 10, 2017.
#Breathe air-quality sensorsÂ recordedÂ â€śsevereâ€ť air quality (>250 Âµg/mÂł or 10 times World Health Organizationâ€™s safe levels) in four of eight locations in seven north Indian cities, based on 24-hr average PM 2.5 levels on November 7, 2017,Â IndiaSpendÂ reportedÂ on November 10, 2017.
China has instituted regional air quality regulations to ensure that air pollution is addressed jointly across city and state boundaries,Â IndiaSpendÂ reportedÂ on November 21, 2016. It has developed a network of 1,500 air quality-monitoring stations in over 900 cities compared to 39 in India covering 23 cities.
Over 11 months, Delhi failed to issue 150 air quality alerts
As air quality index continues to worsen in Delhi, the national capital missed 150 alerts over the last 11 months since January 12, 2017, according to an analysis done by Sudhir based on data from the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP), the governmentâ€™sÂ alert system, Air-quality levels crossed â€śpoorâ€ť 95 times, â€śvery poor to severeâ€ť 49 times and â€śemergencyâ€ť six times, the analysis show.
Monsoon was the only relief for Delhiites as they could breathe easy in July and August as air quality index recorded safe levels.
As many as 30 alerts were not issued between October and November 8, 2017,Â IndiaSpendreportedÂ on November 9, 2017.
â€śDelhiâ€™s Graded Response Action Plan has clearly failed to make any difference to the severe pollution levels being witnessed by the citizens of Delhi,â€ť Sudhir said.
â€śThe government had enough time to implement GRAP and ensure inter-state coordination. Implementing GRAP and addressing pollution at the source are not mutually exclusive. If long-term solutions are not in place, episodic action to mitigate the problem will not help as most agencies continue to pass the buck with no accountability to implement action plans across the region.â€ť