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Learning from Beijing; Tackling Delhi’s Air Pollution Challenge

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 27, 2015

    As recent data shows, Delhi has the worst air pollution among all the world capitals.1 Delhi had earned this dubious distinction at the start of the 21st Century as well, when air pollution reached a peak. However, judicial intervention, a quick overhaul of the public transport system, improvements in the road network, establishment of the subway network and accelerated implementation of fuel and emission standards had helped the city to achieve cleaner air in a relatively short span of time. But these gains have been offset in less than two decades by a number of other factors. First, higher rates of economic growth and greater disposable income, the availability of easy credit and the resultant onset of consumerism, and better roads have also led to Delhi emerging with the highest concentration of motor vehicles in the country. Second, a frenzy of construction activity, often in violation of the ecological norms set by the National Green Tribunal has considerably contributed to growing levels of air pollution. Third, the non-completion of roads that allow trucks to bypass the city has meant that nearly 80,000 trucks cross Delhi every night.2 Put together, all these have led to a considerable worsening of the city’s air pollution once again.

    Beijing went through a similar cycle of air pollution from 1998-99 to 2013. While it did manage to control the air pollution challenge until 2011, since then some of the worst instances of air pollution have recurred in the city especially during winter. This indicates that the solution to a city’s air pollution does not only lie just within its territorial limits. In this context, it is important to consider what Delhi can learn from Beijing, both in terms of what the latter did and failed to do. India and China cooperate at the bilateral as well as multilateral levels on climate change. These two large developing Asian countries could and should cooperate on environmental issues and specifically on clean urbanization because there is scope to develop a shared understanding of the problems and solutions.

    Both Beijing and Delhi moved polluting industries outside the core city limits as a first response to their air pollution problem. Beijing chose the fourth and later the sixth ring road as the limit within which polluting industries cannot operate. It also made concerted efforts to eliminate in-house coal burning and ran campaigns to convince residents to change their domestic heating systems from coal to electric ones. This is something that Delhi can replicate in terms of raising awareness about the harm of open-air fires and promoting the use of more efficient electric heating systems. Beijing also banned the use of coal-fired ovens in the city’s kitchens. Would Delhi be able to do something similar with regard to the tandoor? It is important to note in this context that electric tandoors are already available in the market. Additionally, small and medium enterprises producing these electric tandoors could and should be encouraged with tax exemptions to bring down the price and make it attractive for users.

    Beijing also benefits from China’s national action plan on energy efficiency, which first targeted the top 1,000 industries based on energy demand to reduce their energy intensity. This resulted in a nearly 25 per cent reduction in energy demand from these industries. And the plan was subsequently extended to the top 10,000 industries. In addition, the retrofitting and closure of a number of thermal power plants also helped given that Beijing is practically surrounded by mega industrial townships and large thermal power plants. India has an element of energy efficiency built into its national action plan on climate change. While energy auditing of industry and labelling of consumer durables for their energy efficiency has been undertaken with some success, the outcome of the national mission for enhanced energy efficiency is not clear as yet.

    The innovative use of social media was another factor that contributed to Beijing’s environmental clean-up. This was actually initiated by the US Embassy in Beijing, which started monitoring and sharing the city’s air pollution levels on its twitter handle. For this purpose, the US Embassy in Beijing used PM 2.5 indices long before the city authorities officially adopted the measure. In fact, once when pollution level crossed the 500 mark, it was shared with the tag “crazy-bad”, which became global news. Beijing’s first reaction then was to question the US Embassy’s motivation in doing so.3 Second, it went on to challenge the latter’s right to do so, calling the practice an infringement of sovereignty. And third, it pleaded that China was still a developing country and needed time to adopt advanced standards. But Beijing eventually came around and adopted the PM 2.5 based monitoring for air pollution. Even as it officially began to use the “clear sky days” indicator which was unscientific and perception-based, one blogger simply took daily pictures of the Beijing skyline and put it up on the social media. Ultimately, the contrast between the official version and the blogger’s version was out there for everyone to see. The resulting social pressure compelled the city administration to swing into action faster.

    One interesting way in which Beijing attempted to clean up its environment was by using environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs). China has many environmental NGOs that have used their initial mandate of educating the citizen to create a niche for themselves. NGOs often collaborate with the media to increase awareness, expose defaulter organizations and official corruption that allowed environmentally harmful practices to continue. For its part, India too has to become more innovative in using NGOs for tackling the pollution challenge. It needs to take a fresh look at the role played by NGOs like Greenpeace in this respect.

    Like Delhi, Beijing has a huge appetite for private cars. The number of private cars in Beijing has increased exponentially in the last two decades, from one million in 1997 to more than five million in 2012. However, restrictions on ownership, expensive auctions for number plates and a complete ban on diesel vehicles have meant that owning and using a car in Beijing is no longer easy. The question is whether Delhi would be able to undertake such measures to control its air pollution challenge. In this context, the recent decision of the National Green Tribunal banning diesel vehicles that are more than ten years old is a welcome step. However, whether there would be a larger policy change with reference to diesel cars in the NCR region is a different issue altogether, as the automobile sector in India is one of the drivers of economic growth.

    India has recently announced its own Air Quality Index (AQI) as a first step towards ensuring cleaner air. India’s AQI is an average-based measurement, which means that pollution is likely to be underreported due to the averaging out of the worst case hours. Linking AQI data with restrictions on private vehicles like odd and even number days that can halve the number of vehicles on the street, a reduction in fares coupled with the increased availability of public transport, and declaring holidays for schools when pollution crosses hazardous levels are some of the measures that Beijing has adopted. These are also measures that could be replicated in Delhi.

    Ultimately, Delhi and Beijing are the megacity capitals of two large developing Asian countries. They can learn from each other in the areas of clean development, energy efficiency, river water treatment, solid waste management, fertilizer and pesticide control. Cleaning up the environment is the easiest area to begin with. In particular, access to affordable clean technology has been a clear challenge for both countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slated to visit Beijing in May 2015 and developing bilateral environmental cooperation as part of his smart city initiative or Make in India policy should find a place on his agenda. India-China environmental cooperation would be a good start for their developmental partnership and benefit both countries in the long run.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India