7 PM Editorial |Interplay Between COVID 19 and Air pollution|17th July 2020

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Interplay Between COVID 19 and Air pollution

Introduction:

COVID 19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented health crisis globally. While the pandemic related health crisis is unfolding, another aspect of health relating to air pollution is impacted by disruptions induced by pandemic. This was visible in temporary improvement of air quality of cities due to lockdowns and movement restrictions.

But as economic activities resume, air pollution is bound to increase. Air pollution related health risks are greater than COVID 19 based on long term morbidity and mortality. Air pollution also increases the risk of infection of COVID. Hence air pollution needs to be addressed with the same urgency as COVID. Actions taken by nations to recover from the pandemic will have impact on air quality

Based on disruptions and actions taken in response, 3 types of outcomes are possible related to air quality. They are:

  • New opportunities to accelerate transitions of systems and behaviour to improve air quality
  • Dilution of environmental safeguards in pursuit of fast economic recovery which worsens air quality. These have to be avoided.
  • Sustaining recent progress in tackling air pollution to make it long term. This is challenging in the context of limited fiscal resources.
Disruptions and opportunities to set new agenda:

Disruptions have induced certain behaviours, systemic changes and new policies. These when sustained for long term can have a positive impact on air quality.

5 areas where such opportunities are available are:

  • Providing increased, better-targeted LPG subsidyto make it primary cooking fuel of poor households. PM Garib Kalyan Yojana providing 3 LPG cylinders is a right step.
  • Sustaining the increased rate of shifting away from paddy cultivation in Punjab and Haryana due to labour constraints, and ensuring that the alternatives (for example, maize, cotton) are viable for farmers.
  • Focusing on the demand for vehicle scrappage policiestowards the replacement of old, heavily polluting vehicles, especially trucks. This also is positive for the economy as demand for new vehicles will increase.
  • Retiring old coal power plantsso that newer or less polluting plants can meet a larger fraction of power demand, while likely easing the financial crisis in the sector.
  • Sustaining acceptability of work-from-home and online meetingsto reduce commute by private vehicles and taxis.
Contesting dilutions to safeguards:

Quick economic recovery is priority to protect incomes and livelihoods. In pursuit of the same, governments may dilute environmental safeguards to improve ease of doing business.

Examples of such measures are:

  • Draft EIA(Environment Impact Assessment) notification, 2020: It dilutes the process to obtain environmental clearance, reduces the categories of projects and activities that will have to undergo impact-assessment scrutiny and curtails public consultation processes significantly.It also proposes procedures to deal with violations that are legally untenable, and will effectively allow environmental offences to be condoned at very little or no cost to the violator.
  • Extending deadlines for power plants to meet 2015 emission standards

Yet such actions can lead to long term adverse health outcomes due to ecosystem damages and increased air pollution. Hence they must be contested. Greater transparency in monitoring, inspection and enforcement data from the pollution control boards becomes more urgent to ensure dilutions in day-to-day regulation do not go unnoticed

Sustaining recent progress:

We need to sustain the actions initiated prior to the pandemic to tackle the air pollution. They cannot be compromised by funding cuts or delays. Avenues must be made to make them long term and systemic by sustaining the discourse and generating new ideas.

NCAP – National Clean Air Programme: For improving air quality in 102 non attainment cities(where air quality standards are inadequate). 5 year programme(2019-2024)

Objectives:

1. 20-30% reduction in PM 2.5 and PM 10 by 2024 compared to 2017

2. Strengthening air quality monitoring network

3. Awareness and capacity building.

The National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) needs continued strengthening, by developing uniform processes for identifying non-attainment cities and to track inter-year air quality improvements. This must be done by:

  • Effective utilization of performance based grant provided by 15th Finance commission to improve air quality in 42 cities with million plus population. This needs collaboration of national, state and local governments with civil society to prioritize actions
  • Expanding such performance based grants for 2021-26 i.e whole period of finance commission.
  • Expanding scope of NCAP to regional, airshed level level from city level

In addition, investments in sustainable infrastructure and improvement in public transportation will lead to cleaner air.

Conclusion:

COVID 19 pandemic requires emergency response to tackle the emerging health and economic crises. This response can be fine tuned to ensure air quality is improved which will result in sustainable recovery and improves long term health outcomes.

Source: https://www.hindustantimes.com

Mains Question:
  1. DIscuss the link between COVID 19 pandemic and air quality? [15 marks, 250 words]
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