Wednesday, March 27, 2013

India's Air Pollution Woes (The World Bank)

Senior Environmental Economist,
The World Bank, Washington DC
Link to the article.

The World Health Organization’s recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Assessment estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 620,000 premature deaths per year in India, a six fold increase since 2000. The main causes are growing emissions of particulate emissions (PM10) from transport and power plants. GBD in this analysis has ranked air pollution as the sixth most dangerous killer in South Asia and fifth leading cause of deaths in India.

Also, according to the WHO, across the G-20 economies, 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India and over 50% of the sites studied across India had critical levels of PM10 pollution. A recent rapid survey by Delhi based Center for Science and Environment revealed that almost 75% of respondents considered air pollution as a major cause of concern and as responsible for respiratory illnesses.

While these findings are indeed worrisome, WHO analysis does not put an economic cost to its estimates which could indeed be huge. We did a similar analysis as a part of our recent study “An Analysis of Physical and Monetary Losses of Environmental Health and Natural Resources in India.” The study estimated the total cost of environmental degradation in India at about Rs. 3.75 trillion (US$80 billion) annually, equivalent to 5.7 percent of GDP in 2009. Of this total, outdoor air pollution accounts for the highest share at 1.7 percent followed by the cost of indoor air pollution at 1.3 percent. Our study only looked only at cities with a population of 100,000.

Both these estimates basically are a reflection the ground realities. In most Indian cities the ambient particulate emissions exceed, sometimes dramatically, the current national standard of 60μm / m3. Average annual concentration in Delhi for example is about 120 μg / m3, as against a residential National Standard of 60 μg / m3 and WHO guideline of 20 μg / m3.

In recognition of the problem, the Government of India (GoI) in 2009 revised its national ambient air quality standards by bringing six new pollutants under regulation, tightening the acceptable ambient concentration for other pollutants, and eliminated the distinction between industrial and residential areas. As a result, many urban areas—which may have been out of compliance even with the older norms—must significantly cut emissions to move towards the more stringent, uniform standards now in place. Further in its XIIth Five Year Plan, the government has set the goal of implementing its new national air quality standards in all urban areas by 2017.

This definitely looks like a tall order under current circumstances. Especially, if it not backed by a comprehensive regulatory framework, implementation plan, instruments and enforcement mechanisms. To meet the ambition and goals set in the XIIth plan, there is need for taking immediate action in a number of areas. This could include:
  • Preparation of city level action plans in line with the targets to be achieve backed by a regulatory and enforcement framework and instruments. GoI is already piloting emission trading scheme for particulate emission 3 states and this could be extended to cities where pollution threshold is far above the threshold
  • Enhancement of technology and efficiency standards for automobiles
  • Taking measures to reduce traffic and congestion by promoting congestion pricing in certain cities and by encouraging use public transport systems
  • Enhancing efficiency of coal fired plants. Evidence suggests that even small steps like mandatory coal washing could go a long way in reducing particulate emissions
  • Finally, account for health cost in decision making. Internationally accepted research findings on the health implications of environmental parameters should become the basis for the environmental standards setting.
End of Article


Our assessment of pollution from the coal-fired power plant.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Air Pollution News & Alerts - March 21st, 2013

Scientific American, March 21st, 2013
Will Fossil Fuels Be Able to Maintain Economic Growth?

The CityFix, March 20th, 2013
Cleaning-up the air with electric tricycles in Manila, Philippines.

Science Daily, March 18th, 2013
Petroleum Use, Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Automobiles Could Drop 80 Percent by 2050.

The CityFix, March 14th, 2013
Reducing carbon emissions through better driving.

Radio West, March 14th, 2013
Clearing the Air: Health Consequences.

Air Quality News, March 14th, 2013
Air quality modelling data can confuse public.

NPR, March 12th, 2013
As Natural Gas Creeps In, King Coal's Reign Fades.

Economic Times, March 12th, 2013
China wrestles with cost of cleaner environment.

Business Standard, March 11th, 2013
Sunita Narain: Pollution kills, but who cares?

Sierra Club, March 11th, 2013
Mortality due to coal-fired power plants.

Eurasia.Net, March 11th, 2013
Mongolia: New Heating Technology Struggles To Combat Pollution Scourge.

Hindustan Times, March 8th, 2013
Gzb air more polluted than Delhi, Noida safer.

Eurasia.Net, March 8th, 2013
Mongolia: New Heating Technology Struggles to Combat Pollution Scourge.

Peoples Daily Online, March 8th, 2013
Shanghai suffers another morning of heavy air pollution.

Phys.Org, March 7th, 2013
Coal-fired power plants making Europeans sick.

Huffington Post, March 7th, 2013
Coal Kills -- Time to Kill Coal.

Hindustan Times, March 7th, 2013
Just two of 190 cities had low level of air pollution in 2010.

EurActiv, March 7th, 2013
Air pollution puts UK in the dock and Europe in the red.

The Pendulum, March 7th, 2013
Air pollution in Beijing manifests far deeper problem.

China.Org, March 6th, 2013
Shanghai to curb air pollution.

Green Left, March 5th, 2013
Severe air pollution chokes Pakistan.

Slate, March 5th, 2013
Where Is the Worst Air in the World?

Times of India, March 4th, 2013
Air pollution threats Ranchi.

Council on Foreign Relations, March 4th, 2013
Choking to Death: Health Consequences of Air Pollution in China.

Times of India, March 4th, 2013
This City of Cars must dedicate space for cycling and walking.

The Guardian, March 3rd, 2013
Chinese smog is choking my creativity, says film-maker.

Gulf Times, March 3rd, 2013
‘India set to overtake China in energy use’.

The Wall Street Journal, March 3rd, 2013
Chen Kaige: Beijing Air Pollution Strangling Creativity.

China Daily, March 1st, 2013
Air pollution needs urgent action.

Air Quality News, February 28th, 2013
Pollution from HGVs ‘costs Europe nearly £40 billion’.

Washington Post, February 28th, 2013
The most shocking photo of Beijing air pollution I’ve ever seen.

February 27th, 2013
Does concern for the environment stunt political careers in China?

Xinhua Net, February 22nd, 2013
China's energy consumption rises 3.9 pct in 2012.

China Daily, February 21st, 2013
Emission limits enhanced to cut pollution.

Business Recorder, February 5th, 2013
Sugar mills chimney creates air pollution.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Europe's Avoidable Health Risk from Power Plant Emisions (The Lancet)

Story below from The Lancet.
There is now no doubt that air pollution, and especially fine particulate matter (PM2·5), has many serious consequences for health and leads to avoidable premature deaths. A large body of evidence exists for short-term and long-term effects on cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases—including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and lung cancer. Newly emerging evidence suggests possible effects on premature births, lung-function development in children, and accelerated progression of atherosclerosis and cognitive impairment. Even more worrying is that these effects may exist at low levels of air pollution and that there is no safe threshold level, rather a linear concentration-response relationship.
The current EU limit for PM2·5 at 25 μg/m3 annual average is already higher than the WHO Air Quality Guidelines (10 μg/m3), a discrepancy that needs urgent attention but this might not be enough. As the EU has declared 2013 “The Year of the Air”, there is hope that air pollution—the most important environmental risk factor for the health of Europeans—will get the attention it deserves.
However, discussions need to go beyond health. A new report, The unpaid health bill: how coal power plants make us sick, released by the Health and Environment Alliance on March 7, points out the underappreciated source of air pollution from coal power plants. It estimates that 18 200 premature deaths per year and up to €42·8 billion in health-related costs are attributable to coal power generation. The number of coal power plants has been decreasing for decades but they are now increasing again with 500 new plants under discussion. They emit PM, but also toxic heavy metals, such as mercury. Germany, Poland, and Romania's coal power plants are responsible for half of all estimated health impacts, and of course health effects do not respect borders. The report calls for phasing out of coal power in Europe by 2040 and for an immediate moratorium on the construction of new plants.
Tackling air pollution is an important example where Europe-wide joined-up thinking is urgently needed. Energy, climate change, and health—some of the most important issues of the 21st century—must be considered together in all relevant policies.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Advocating Tigheter Emission Control Standards for Coal-fired Power Plants in India

Click here for more details and full report

Your study estimates that pollution from coal power plants causes up to 115,000 premature deaths in India every year, with an associated cost of $3.3 to $4.6 billion. Were you yourself surprised by these numbers?
Not really. The recent Global Burden of Disease study, published in The Lancet in December 2012, quantified the trends of more than 200 causes of deaths for the period of 1990-2010 and listed outdoor air pollution among the top 10 causes of deaths for India.

For India, total premature mortality due to outdoor particulate matter (PM) pollution is estimated at 627,000 for the year 2010. What we estimated is a fraction of that from one of the major energy sectors in India. Other sources are on-road vehicle exhaust and road dust, manufacturing industries including brick kilns, and the contribution of household fuel combustion to the outdoors.

What are the major health impacts associated with exposure to particulate matter and other pollutants emitted by these plants?
Exposure to the pollutants like particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides cause illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, cerebrovascular disease, ischemic heart disease, bronchitis and cancers of the trachea and lung, leading to premature death. The most vulnerable are children, the elderly and those with existing health issues.

How much of the problem is due to the fact that India’s power plants burn relatively low-quality coal?
Part of the problem is the use of low-quality coal, with high ash content and low calorific value, which puts consumption of coal per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated higher than that in the United States and China. The other part is the lack of regulation.

The government mandates that coal used in ecologically sensitive and in populated areas be no more than 34 percent ash content. There are, however, no means to ascertain if this is indeed the case and we have no data on this.

Some of the pollution could be reduced if flue-gas desulphurizers are used. However, as per current regulations these are not mandatory and so very few plants operate them or even plan to install them in the future. Currently, there are no regulations for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions, and the standards for particulates are between 5 and 10 times higher than those in the United States, European Union and China.

How serious a problem is the lack of openly available data on individual power plants’ continuous emissions, and how did you overcome that obstacle in your study?
If you look at the annual performance reports published regularly by the Central Electricity Authority, the only data available on the emissions are minimum and maximum values observed over a year for the total particulates. This is in spite of installed monitors at most of the stacks.

The data is not released in real-time for assessments, hence we have to depend on calculations based on coal consumed, coal characteristics based on where the coal is mined, and existing control technologies. The problem with the monitoring data is very similar to the ambient stations in the cities, where it is again hard to access the data in the public domain.

Is a lack of adequate nationwide emissions control standards or inadequate enforcement of existing standards the bigger problem? What’s the best place for regulators to start?
The lack of standards and enforcement of these are complementary issues. As we mentioned earlier – we have no standards for pollutants, except particulate matter, from power plants, which is shocking given that coal-based power accounts for about 60 percent of our electricity. Without standards, there is no incentive for power plants to reduce emissions to meet them.

As a significant “point-source” of air pollution, one would think that it is relatively easy to monitor 111 existing coal plants and regulate these “points.” It is in many ways easier to monitor and enforce this compared to non-point sources such as vehicles, domestic combustion, brick kilns, etc., that are dispersed and that, while individually smaller than power plants, in combination are major sources of pollution.

For a start, regulators need to set standards, maintain continuous monitoring systems, provide public access to these data and enforce compliance. Technologies for controlling particulates and sulfur dioxide exist. It is a matter of mandating procedures like flue-gas desulfurization, which could take care of about 30 percent of the particulate pollution from the coal-fired power plants in the form of sulfates, a secondary component of particulate pollution.

Why does India lag so far behind other developing countries, including China, in setting standards for emissions of particulate matter from power plants?
The lack of political will is the main reason for our non-existent standards. The question of regulations has not been addressed in a while. With the growing number of power plants in the pipeline, according to an assessment conducted by Prayas Energy in Pune, it is about time that it is addressed.

Your study shows that pollutants from coal plants can affect people up to 100 kilometers downwind. But people in certain areas with a higher density of power plants, such as Delhi-Harayana and Jharkhand, have a higher risk of exposure. In the absence of strong national standards, are there any states and municipalities taking strong local action to regulate this pollution?
Not really, only a handful of power plants have installed flue-gas treatment plants as a result of local action. One example is the power plant in Trombay, near Mumbai. According to Prayas Energy, of the 200-plus new power plants with permissions for construction through 2020-30, less than ten have planned flue-gas treatment facilities.

Many analysts argue that India will depend primarily on coal for electricity generation for decades to come. To achieve deep reductions in the adverse health impacts associated with coal-burning pollution, will tightening controls of what comes out of those plant stacks be sufficient? Or will shifting to cleaner power sources like solar and wind on a much wider scale ultimately be required?
This study looked at the impacts of 111 coal plants, and as you mention, a tripling of the number of coal plants will have a much larger impact on health of India’s population. The scale of new projects is so large that merely tightening controls will likely be insufficient to negate the health impacts of these plants – and a shift to cleaner alternatives will be necessary. Especially given that the negative impacts of coal go beyond just air pollution and include impacts on water, land-resources, social justice, etc., that are beyond the scope of our study.

That said, we believe that tightening controls and enforcing them is a start for immediate relief.

How do you think this study might change the public conversation about the costs and benefits of India’s dependence on coal as it continues to expand its power infrastructure to meet rapidly rising demand?
From epidemiological studies and the recent Global Burden of Disease assessments, it is evident that outdoor air pollution is one of the key sources of disease and death in India.

In order for the public to demand action on controlling the air pollution, we feel that the information is the key element. We need to know the status of air pollution and contributions from various sources like transport, power plants, industries, household fuels, and others.

We feel that this study is important on two fronts. First, it presents data on emissions, concentrations and health impacts of the coal power sector. While this may seem basic, it is unfortunate that this sort of information has not been published previously and we hope that it presents policy makers with evidence as to air pollution and health impacts of the sector. Second, it shows that despite the air pollution it causes, there are minimal regulations in place to address the air pollution impacts.
If the study convinces policy makers of the need to put in place stringent standards and enforce them – then it may be a start to a broader conversation on our energy needs and the environmental and health costs of supplying them.

(Click here to view animations of the seasonal changes in concentration of particulate matter from coal plants across India.)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Where Is the Worst Air in the World? (Slate)

Article from Slate, March 5th, 2013

I wake up and suck a bowl of charred asbestos through a dirty bong.
Well, that’s what it feels like most winter mornings when I open the door of the fourth-floor New Delhi apartment that I currently call home. Fog-drenched clumps of soot, ozone molecules, and microscopic bundles of nitrogen oxides flow down my trachea and into my chest, where some become lodged. Some of these particles might give me lung cancer. Others will enter my bloodstream, further inflaming old ankle and finger injuries. The airborne detritus puts me in danger of contracting bronchitis, asthma, a lung infection, even hypertension and dementia.

China’s appalling air quality made headlines around the world this winter. But people living in New Delhi and in dozens of other cities throughout the developing world consistently endure air with heavier loads of soot than do the residents of Beijing. While most Americans and Europeans now enjoy cleaner air than they did for much of the last century, air pollution is worsening in Asia, claiming millions of lives every year.

Air pollution in Beijing by numbers.

After weeks without a trip outside of Delhi, I gradually stop noticing the filth in the air. There are exceptions, of course, such as that hostile blast of moist air on a foggy winter morning. Or when I’m sitting at a stoplight in an open-air auto rickshaw, feeling fumes wash over me from a honking swarm of vehicles. Or when a layer of darkness veils my drying clothes, coats the inside of my nose, or hangs heavy along a horizon.

With every breath, regardless of how mindful or oblivious I am of the poison that’s filling my lungs, my risk of suffering a stroke or a heart attack increases.
An estimated 3.2 million people died prematurely in 2010 because of the poisonous effects of outdoor air pollution, according to the findings of an exhaustive study of global causes of death published in December in the Lancet. Two-thirds of those killed by air pollution lived in Asia, where air quality continues to worsen.

Outdoor air pollution has become India’s fifth highest killer. Only tobacco, high blood pressure, indoor air pollution (typically caused by poorly ventilated stoves), and diets that are poor in fruit and vegetables kill more people here.

The most vulnerable to air pollution are children, the elderly, and people already suffering from respiratory or cardiac illness, says Anumita Roychowdhury, an air pollution expert at the Delhi-based nonprofit Center for Science and Environment. Even fit adults in the prime of their lives are at risk. The dangers range from cancer to hypertension, diabetes, and birth defects. “We need to be extremely careful,” says Roychowdhury.
Air pollution levels in China recently reached dizzying new heights. An air quality monitor operated by the U.S. Embassy detected a spectacular spike in pollution levels in Beijing in January and broadcast them over Twitter. The media frenzy helped force the country’s rulers to pledge to take steps to clean the city’s air, such as removing polluting vehicles from the streets.

“Beijing was filthy,” says Mark Bagley, a San Francisco resident who visited Asia recently. “The rain and snow were gray to dark gray with minimal visibility—maybe two blocks at most. Rain that pooled in the gutters looked black.”

But according to World Health Organization data covering more than 1,000 cities in 91 countries, China’s capital is not the city that consistently endures the world’s worst air pollution. It doesn’t even come close.

One of the crucial measures of dangerous air pollution is the number of parts per million of particles smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10) wafting through the air. Beijing’s residents breathe in air with an average PM10 of 121, but millions of people have it worse.

The rankings, cobbled together using air monitoring data from a variety of sources between 2003 and 2010, suggest that the world’s worst air pollution floats over Ahwaz, a city in southwestern Iran where the average PM10 level hovers around 372. Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, ranks second, enduring a 279 PM10, far higher than the global average of 71.

Farther down the list are more cities in Iran, along with some in India, Pakistan, and Botswana, before Delhi appears in the 12th spot, with average particulate levels of 198 parts per million.

To Americans, Asia’s air pollution woes may seem a world away. But it is a small world. Pollution travels east along jet streams from Asia to the North American West Coast. Research indicates that nearly one-third of the soot in the San Francisco Bay Area blew over from Asia.

The most polluted region in the United States, according to the WHO’s air quality data, is in California’s Central Valley, where industrial and exhaust pollution gets trapped inside an expansive bowl of rock that’s home to farms, heavy industry, and millions of people. But the valley city of Bakersfield, America’s No. 1 air pollution hotspot, ranked just 276th in the WHO’s list, with an average PM10 count of 38 parts per million.

I’ve spent time in Los Angeles, and I lived for a year in the Central Valley. The ambient pollution in those places can be sickening. But it doesn’t compare to that in Delhi.
Here, it feels like I’m drawing tiny fibers deep into my respiratory system. They seem tangibly solid against my spongy insides.

Regulations such as the Clean Air Act and technological advances have helped scrub America’s air. That is not the case in many developing countries.

“We could easily have taken a cleaner pathway of development,” says India’s Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He pointed out that cities such as Pittsburgh and London have recovered from terrible air pollution from when the United States and the United Kingdom were at earlier stages of development. “Unfortunately, we have not learned from those examples.”

The New York Times’ India Ink blog reported that air pollution was more than twice as bad in Delhi on Jan. 31 than it was in Beijing. There are 46 cities, in such countries as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, Mexico, and Nigeria, where average pollution levels exceed those of Beijing. Overall, India recently ranked last in a list of 132 countries surveyed for their air quality.
Most of the pollution that I inhale in Delhi comes from diesel-burning trucks and buses. Other aerial filth that enters my lungs broke away from gasoline as it combusted incompletely in cars and from natural gas burned by auto rickshaws.

Coal-fired power plants and agricultural burning take a toll. As do makeshift campfires that line the streets at night during the winter, where everything from leaf litter and cow dung to rubber motorcycle saddles are burned for warmth.

It’s not that officials here don’t care. Efforts to cut pollution from vehicles in Delhi in the late 1990s and early 2000s, by taking such steps as switching auto rickshaws over to natural gas and requiring annual vehicle inspections, helped clear the air. But as the city’s wealth grows, it is experiencing an explosion in the number of cars and other vehicles on its roads, pushing air pollution levels back up again. The Indian Express newspaper recently reported that Delhi’s environment department is mulling a suite of efforts to tackle the problem anew, such as promoting public transit, jacking up parking fees, shuttering coal-fired power plants, and more harshly penalizing those who break pollution rules.

But as is the case in so many other cities in developing countries throughout Asia, economic progress and the clamor for trade, travel, and newfound luxuries are proving no match for incipient government programs that aim to protect people from bad air.

After just six months in India, I’m growing accustomed to occasional fits of coughing and hacking. I hold American and Australian passports, and even as a freelance journalist I’m wealthy by local standards, making it easy to leave Delhi whenever I am ready.

But for a substantial portion of the planet’s population, some of them Chinese but many of them living in countries where pollution woes go little noticed by Western journalists, there would seem to be little hope of gulping at the fresh air that so many people in other parts of the world take for granted.