The approaching winter marks the annual return of staggeringly high levels of air pollution in north India and intensifies the unending search for a permanent solution to the problem. Nasa satellite images have begun spotting farm fires in Punjab, and growing plumes of smoke over adjoining cities. As the post-Covid-19 economic recovery gathers momentum and sectors such as transport, construction and energy witness a rapid increase in activity, pollution levels in the region are likely to see a significant spike.
According to IQAir’s 2019 world air quality report, India is now host to 21 of the 30 most polluted cities of the world.
It is, therefore, urgent for the government to devise a robust multi-pronged strategy that can aggressively target emission reduction from key polluting sectors such as agriculture, industry, thermal power plants and transportation, while significantly reducing India’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Such a strategy must harness the role of key stakeholders in addressing air pollution. The private sector, through its technical expertise, sector-specific knowledge and ability to design unique, cutting-edge innovations, can devise effective long-term solutions to two of the major challenges government is faced with — lack of technological solutions and large-scale monitoring.
One of the key challenges facing the respective state governments across north India is disposing agricultural waste. In 2019, Punjab and Haryana burnt 9Mt and 1.23Mt of 20Mt and 9Mt of crop stubble produced respectively. As per the Delhi government data, this stubble burning accounted for 44% of the city’s air pollution. In the absence of a permanent alternative, stubble-burning will be difficult to contain, adding to the complexity of combating air pollution in the region even further.
Businesses can complement the government’s efforts by developing promising market-based solutions to address this crisis. For instance, Mahindra group partnered with Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) in 2018 to convert crop stubble into biofuel which could be used to run generators to light up villages.
Scaling up such impact ventures would lead to policy measures assuring farmers minimum support price and long-term buy-back guarantees for crop stubbles. Moreover, by engaging rural communities in the infrastructure value chain such as collection, storage and transportation of crop residue, enterprises will not only generate large-scale employment opportunities, but ensure a “sustainable” revenue model for farmers.
Besides the short-term cause, a major issue impacting India’s air quality is its economic dependence on fossil fuels. Despite the government’s ambitious plan to increase renewable energy generation, 72% of India’s electricity is generated from coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. The industry demand for energy — due to growth of coal-consuming industrial sectors like steel and cement — is projected to double by 2030.
Private sector innovations such as cleaner gas-based energy solutions can contribute significantly to reduce the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels. Companies such as ExxonMobil have designed energy-efficient industrial lubricants to increase industrial competitiveness, energy efficiency and environmental viability. While improving energy reliability and air quality, private sector can also play a critical role in empowering the government’s Make in India mandate.
However, an effective implementation of technology solutions would depend on the monitoring of emission intensity, its source and air quality (AQ) to assess the exact scale of interventions required. With only one monitoring station for every seven million people, India has substantial ground to cover for AQ monitoring.
According to a projection by a team of scientists from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, IIT Kanpur, Indian pollution research group UrbanEmissions.info, and Canadian academicians, India will need at least 1,600 more monitoring stations to meet its AQ monitoring requirement.
The private sector can help meet this gap by facilitating big data analytics, designing accurate granular models as well as low-cost sensor technologies to measure air quality. The air quality sensor called “Zephyr”, developed by the mobility management company Siemens Mobility and the air quality experts at EarthSense can produce real-time measurements for various pollutants, allowing local authorities to make meaningful and timely interventions based on reliable pollution data and prevailing air quality levels.
The private sector can also finance academic partnerships and trans-disciplinary research that will gain deeper scientific understanding of the sources of air pollution, provide a strong foundation for evidence-based action and drive technological breakthroughs for achieving deep cuts in pollution.
Finally, as businesses themselves are the largest contributor to the air pollution crisis, they must assume a larger share of responsibility. The private sector must align its own practices and supply chains with the clean air agenda.
By setting standards that monitor and regulate pollution at every stage of production, businesses can effectively reduce the environmental footprint of their operations as well as those of their suppliers. Investments made through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can be effectively utilised to address the interrelated challenges of air pollution and the climate crisis.
In India’s battle for clean air, the role of private sector in forging effective and lasting solutions to improve air quality across the country has never been more critical.
Aparna Roy is associate fellow and lead, Climate Change and Energy, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy and Tanushree Chandra is junior fellow at Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal