Be it New Delhi, Beijing or Paris, air pollution concerns all of us. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on an official visit to Paris and was able to breathe its air without any trouble. But sometimes, the French capital witnesses relative spikes in air pollution, most recently during the ides of March.
Air pollution is a global problem with local specificities. Regardless of its form, air pollution has serious adverse consequences in various areas. The effects on health depend on the concentration of pollutants, which differ according to cities. Its impact on economic growth in cities is perceptible: decreased productivity and attractiveness. Tourism, business and people-to-people contacts can be generally affected in the medium and long term, and citizens’ quality of life deteriorates. Add to these the fact that big metropolises, as well as mid-sized cities, are growth and innovation drivers and often act as showcases of a country’s attractiveness.
“Most polluted cities” classifications do not serve much purpose as far as solutions are concerned, as these depend on the origins of the pollution and the climatic and geological conditions of the urban zones in question. Each city generates its own pollution, which originates from the lifestyles and modes of production of its denizens and those in surrounding zones. This requires a response suited to the local context, which is often complex. It will be impossible to provide lasting solutions for air pollution without changing local behaviour. It is, therefore, necessary to hold a dispassionate discussion and bring pragmatic solutions to the table.
In France and Europe, air pollution is a problem that was flagged long ago. Historians have shown that the air quality in 19th century European cities, during the Industrial Revolution, had reached disastrous levels. It was one of the reasons behind the social movements of the time. Today, it remains a problem for numerous European cities, mainly due to the transport system. Moreover, the development models used in the 19th and 20th centuries have produced adverse consequences in the long term.
India is currently in a phase of urban transition. Its urban population is set to double to 600 million people by 2031. According to a McKinsey report, 70 to 80 per cent of India’s buildings in 2030 are yet to be built. If these figures show that India’s future urban challenges are considerable, they also show that this situation is an opportunity — the opportunity to avoid the past mistakes of the cities of developed countries, and certain emerging countries.
Solutions exist with the implementation of sustainable urban development: energy efficiency, development of clean energy, adaptation of conventional energy sources to restrict their negative impact, expansion of the public transport network, urban waste management, and water management and treatment. Innovation and technology — the only two drivers of long-term growth — play a crucial role in each of these fields. The sources of pollution should be clearly identified and the best solutions adopted, keeping in mind the specificities of each city. The various schemes initiated by PM Modi offer good responses: the “smart cities” project is an opportunity to make cities more efficient and sustainable; the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” is mobilising people to achieve nationwide sanitation. The targets fixed for clean energy development contribute to this effort: 175 GW of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020-22 and trebling of nuclear energy by 2024. These policies will, in turn, generate growth and improve public health, as well as the quality of life. All these solutions are compatible with the urban populace in terms of economic development, consumption and access to public services.
International cooperation adapted to Indian contexts can contribute to achieving results. There are no off-the-rack solutions that can be imported from one country to another. At the bilateral level, particularly between France and India, partnerships can be developed for technologies that help bring innovative solutions. French investors already account for 10 per cent of solar energy generation and intend to contribute to the targets fixed by the prime minister with renewed determination. Technological and research partnerships, particularly in the areas of space, clean energy and water, can contribute to this. These projects were discussed during the prime minister’s official visit to France. In this regard, France committed to earmark up to 2 billion euros over three years for sustainable urban development. France is also contributing to the financing of the Kochi metro network, which will be inaugurated in 2016, and that of Bangalore.
These solutions are thus both local and global. The ongoing negotiations for an agreement on climate change should contribute to this endeavour. France will chair the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December this year. France’s position is impartial, its approach one of transparency and listening. Our aim is to reach a global agreement that takes into account the national specificities of each country and offers concrete responses. The contributions of subnational entities, such as cities and states, are essential for implementing solutions and disseminating good practices. This applies particularly to the issue of air pollution.
Air pollution is not, of course, the sole dimension of climate change. The Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, published in November 2014, shows that countering this form of pollution is part of the larger challenge, insofar as it benefits health and the quality of life. Greenhouse gases, which act in the upper atmosphere, partially share a source common to air pollution.
As stated by PM Modi, combating climate change is an opportunity to improve the quality of life of citizens. Over the next few years, India will see the construction of radically new urban spaces. With renewed environmental conditions, the 100 smart cities proposed will be pioneering cities that will serve as models, be drivers of economic growth and social progress, and have breathable air.
The writer is the French ambassador to India.