As smog chokes Delhi, India struggles to ease off coal | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 16.11.2021

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As smog chokes Delhi, India struggles to ease off coal

Shrouded in toxic smog, New Delhi has shut down schools and workplaces. Though nations pledged to move away from coal at the UN climate summit, India is reluctant to replace the polluting fuel source.

A man walks along a road on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India

Students in New Delhi have been forced to attend schools virtually, and government workers told to work from home

People in New Delhi are preparing for the possibility of another lockdown — but this one has nothing to do with COVID-19.

With air pollution reaching hazardous levels in the Indian capital and nearby suburbs in recent days, authorities have resorted to emergency measures. Schools have been closed for a week, and construction sites are sitting idle.

And, on Monday, India's Supreme Court ordered millions of office workers to stay home to keep vehicles off the roads, also suggesting a two-day lockdown to help cut down on pollution. Air quality has deteriorated to such an extent that many people have even been forced to wear masks indoors.

"I am happy that the court has intervened. Every year, without fail, the air gets from bad to worse in November and nothing is ever done," Vinita Garg, a homemaker and one of the city's 20 million residents, told DW. "Thanks to air pollution, my kids always get a runny nose and cough. How can we continue to live like this if the air is so bad?"

Graphic showing how air pollution affects the human body

Air quality in New Delhi, regularly ranked as one of the world's most polluted cities, was nearing the upper limits of the federal pollution scale on Tuesday — a "severe" level that "affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases," according to the state Central Pollution Control Board. A recent study by Environmental Research magazine showed that air pollution is the cause of more than 2.5 million deaths in India each year.

"Many families are now experiencing one or more ailments due to polluted air in Delhi," said Promilla Bhutani, a pediatrician with offices in the city's south. "The worst affected are children who have to go to school in this toxic weather. I hope there is some improvement now that the court has intervened."

Many factors behind air pollution

The city's pollution problem is especially bad in late fall and early winter, when prevailing weather patterns mean pollutants from heavy industry and coal-fired power plants, in addition to smoke from burning crop waste in the neighboring states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, smother the megacity in toxic gray smog.

Watch video 02:37

Coal makes India world's third biggest polluter

"Close to 25, 30% of the pollution can actually be attributed to stubble burning," said Tanushree Ganguly, an air quality researcher with the New Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

"But as we get deeper into winter, particularly the December-January period, you'll find that … people who don't have access to electric heat, they rely on biomass for their space heating needs," she added, referring to fuels such as wood, cow dung or crop residues.

Ganguly told DW that the city needed "more significant" reductions in emissions from all sources, especially during the winter period.

Reliance on fossil fuels

Air pollution, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, is a serious problem in Indian cities. After China and the United States, India is the world's third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, which contributes significantly to global warming.

A large part of those emissions come from coal. The country has nearly doubled its coal consumption over the last decade to keep pace with its booming economy, with the cheap fossil fuel providing around 70% of its electricity. And instead of scaling back its use, the government has announced plans to expand coal power plants and mining operations.

Speaking at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland — where delegates struggled to agree on a deal described by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as "the beginning of the end for coal power" — India's Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav insisted that developing economies were "entitled to the responsible use of fossil fuels." Critics have said a last-minute intervention by major polluters like India and China to weaken anti-coal pledges and "phase down" rather than "phase out" coal were a setback to the world's climate goals.

A worker washes dust off of a solar panel at the Gujarat Solar Park, in Gujarat, India

Solar power is an option as India slowly begins its shift to renewables, but financing remains key

But Environment Minister Yadav argued that developing economies shouldn't be included in the same category as the world's biggest per-capita emitters, with their higher average incomes and economic growth rates.

"In such a situation, how can anyone expect developing countries to make promises of phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies?" he asked. India has committed to going carbon neutral by 2070, 10 years after China and decades later than other major emitters like the US and the European Union.

From coal to solar?

"For a fast-growing economy with low income, this is the reality," said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, an economist and fellow at the CEEW think tank. "The fast-growing economy needs all the fuels that are available to us, to aid in the development process." Millions of Indians still lack basic amenities like electricity, health care and safe drinking water.

Chaturvedi told DW that the coal sector, which he says is crucial to that growth, would continue to expand in India over the next two decades, albeit slowly. At the same time, he said renewable energy will also take off — if it can secure the necessary funding.

The Modi government has pledged to scale up renewables and make solar power as important as coal by 2030, but India still relies heavily on expensive technology from abroad.

A graphic showing coal consumption in various countries in Asia

"India is in a very different situation than US or China," said Pao-Yu Oei, a professor for economics of sustainable energy transition at Europa-Universität Flensburg in northern Germany, pointing out that the country's CO2 emissions per capita are still much lower than other major economies. "[India's] rising economy has resulted in increasing electricity needs which are even bigger than the uptake of renewables."

Oei said financial support was crucial to help India make the transition to renewables, a view shared by Chaturvedi.

"Only by reducing the cost of finance will [we] be further able to reduce the cost of solar electricity, and thus accelerate its absorption into the grid," he said. "Whether it actually materializes or not … is a really big impediment in terms of getting solar off the ground in India."

Chandra Bhushan, head of the Delhi-based International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology, told DW that despite claims made by the Delhi government, pollution has only worsened in recent years. And it wasn't going to be solved by simply shutting the city down for a few days.

"We will have to work with millions of households to eliminate biomass as cooking fuel, work with millions of farmers to restore land and stop stubble burning and work with hundreds of thousands of industries to reduce pollution from coal," he said.

"There is no easy way out."

Additional reporting by Murali Krishnan in New Delhi 

Edited by Jennifer Collins

Correction (November 23, 2021): Some wording has been changed in a graphic in this article


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