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India’s high growth a good position for G20, but urban pollution must be checked

Learning from other G20 nations on how to improve AQI in Indian cities and saving millions of lives from choking with every breath need to be put on as high a priority as financial stability and growth in this interconnected world.

The timing is perfect for India to take over the G20 presidency. When the chips are down for the US, Europe and even China on the GDP growth front, India is a shining star with a likely GDP growth of 6.8 per cent in 2022 and 6.1 per cent expected in 2023 as per the IMF forecast. Perhaps it is the first time in the last 40 years that India will surpass China (3.2 per cent in 2022 and 4.4 per cent in 2023) in two successive years by a wide margin. That makes India stand tall.

Inflation is not out of control. It’s a little higher than the RBI’s tolerance band but surely better than in the US, EU, and UK. So, this is India’s moment to showcase its economic strategy, along with the culture and motto of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — One Earth, One Family, One Future. The government’s motto of LiFE (Lifestyle for Environment) could add further to its shine.

But there is one blot that India needs to erase as soon as possible — pollution in its cities. One wonders what the heads of the G20 nations would think coming to Delhi when the country’s capital is being branded as the most polluted city in the world. The Air Quality Index (AQI) of Delhi during November 1-15, stood at 267 compared to Washington DC at 8, and Beijing at 97. Delhi has the poorest AQI amongst the G20 nations.

Delhites feel as if they are being pushed into a gas chamber. The Air Quality Life Index Report (2022) of the University of Chicago claims that Delhites are losing their life expectancy by 10 years. If this is indeed true, then what is the purpose of scoring the highest GDP growth? Mere slogans on LiFE may not remove this blot. It needs urgent and hard policy decisions, with strict implementation, which sometimes may not be politically palatable. But there is no escape from the current situation under a business-as-usual scenario.

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If Prime Minister Narendra Modi can retain India’s highest growth and significantly improve AQI in the country’s cities, it can pay the BJP handsomely in the 2024 elections. And if he can manage to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with support from the very able External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, PM Modi may even get a Nobel prize for peace Opportunity is knocking at his door to give his best to India and to the world. Only by December 2023, we will know whether he has grabbed this opportunity or let it pass.

We know that the G20 accounts for two-thirds of the world population, about 85 per cent of the global GDP and over 75 per cent of the global trade. Thus, this is the right forum for PM Modi and India to emerge as a responsible world leader, even a vishwa guru.

The message that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced is becoming increasingly loud and clear as climate change has started causing significant damage through heat waves, droughts and floods of increasing intensity and frequency. The COP27 agreement on creating a “loss and damage fund” for compensating developing countries is a good beginning. But the international community is falling far short of the Paris targets, with no viable path to containing global warming to an additional 1.5°C in place.

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According to Climate Watch, the biggest GHG emitters in 2019 were China (12.06 billion tonnes of CO2e), the United States (5.77 Bt CO2e), and India (3.36 Bt CO2e). However, in terms of GHG emissions on a per capita basis in 2021, Australia (23.6 tCO2e) tops, followed by Saudi Arabia (20.4 tCO2e), and Canada (20.3 tCO2e). Our calculations show that in terms of total GHG emissions per billion $ GDP in PPP terms, (tCO2e/ Bn $ GDP, PPP), South Africa (0.65 tCO2e), Indonesia (0.55 tCO2e) and China (0.44 tCO2e) lead the way in 2021. In terms of per capita emissions (2.4 tCO2e) and emission intensity of GDP, PPP (0.33 tCO2e), India is in a relatively much better position. And India can showcase this to G20 heads, provided it cleans its own cities, starting with Delhi, making it liveable.

What is it that PM Modi and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal can do to make Delhi liveable? We know that every winter, when the winds are calm and particulate matter accumulates, the political blame game begins on stubble burning in Punjab’s paddy fields. According to SAFAR (System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research), the largest share of stubble burning to Delhi’s AQI this year was 34 per cent (last year it was 42 per cent). Measures aimed at stubble management are not likely to succeed. Unless the paddy area in Punjab is reduced by at least one million hectares, this problem is likely to stay. The switch away from paddy towards maize, soyabean, pulses, and fruits and vegetables, requires a “diversification strategy” for at least five years, handsomely rewarding farmers with carbon credits, and savings of water and energy.

Vehicular pollution in Delhi is another major cause of poor AQI. A fast-track strategy to promote electric vehicles (EVs) is the answer. Incentivising and even subsidising EVs and charging stations in all parking lots and residential colonies is the way forward.

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To control dust, heavy fines must be enforced on builders who do not use water sprinklers multiple times a day at construction sites. All thermal power plants in and around Delhi must be replaced with more renewable energy sources. Solarisation should be made mandatory for all government buildings, schools, as well as public spaces with a minimum specified area. This will help them in self-financing with the help of net metering. Easy access to finance for such renewables would be key.

Learning from other G20 nations on how to improve AQI in Indian cities and saving millions of lives from choking with every breath need to be put on as high a priority as financial stability and growth in this interconnected world.

Gulati is Distinguished Professor and Thangaraj is a researcher at ICRIER. Views are personal

First published on: 28-11-2022 at 07:51 IST
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