Clean Energy Can Clear the Air in India

Energy and air pollution
Credit: Abhiyant Tiwari

Co-Authored with Jessica Korsh, NRDC Stanback Fellow

The International Energy Agency’s recent report estimates that 6.5 million deaths a year are linked to air pollution. The source of this pollution? Energy—its production and use. India is one of the countries at greatest health risk from air pollution with 22 of the top 50 most polluted cities in the world. Outdoor air pollution in India kills more than 627,000 people annually, and has reduced the life expectancy of Indians by an average of 3.4 years. These staggering numbers do not account for the half a millions premature deaths attributed to household air pollution, and will only rise unless there is tremendous investment in clean energy and emissions control.

Health effects of pollution
Credit: Abhiyant Tiwari

In 2014, fine particulate matter levels in Delhi reached about six times above the WHO recommended maximum. From a public health standpoint fine particulate matter, PM2.5, is the most dangerous pollutant, since it’s about one-30th the size of a human hair. Its microscopic size enables it to enter a person's lungs and bloodstream, and can lead to asthma and other respiratory symptoms, heart and lung disease, and heart attacks.

However, the fate of Indian cities and their residents has not been sealed. The IEA report concludes that implementation of energy policy choices that support clean air and sustainability could dramatically improve air quality and save lives - premature deaths from outdoor air pollution can be cut in half.

They key findings of the IEA report are:

  • In India, the air pollution outlook worsens to 2040 as energy demand rises by 150%, growth in pollutant emissions is estimated to be around 10%contrary to aggregate global emissions of the main pollutants on a slowly declining trend to 2040
  • Actions to deliver access to clean cooking facilities are essential to reducing household emissions in developing countries, while emissions controls and fuel switching are crucial in the power sector, as is increasing energy efficiency in industry and emissions standards that are strictly enforced for road transport
  • With only a 7% increase in total energy investment over the period to 2040, the IEA’s Clean Air Scenario produces a sharp improvement in health compared with the main scenario: premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are 1.7 million lower in 2040 and, from household pollution, 1.6 million lower

India is at a crossroads—the government must seek to balance the country's growing economy and need for electricity with environmental and health concerns. Electricity demand will grow 3.8 times by 2040, making India the driver of future global emissions. As IEA’s Fatih Birol states “Clean air is a basic human right that most of the world's population lacks” and “No country—rich or poor—can claim that the task of tackling air pollution is complete.”

To take action on the IEA’s findings, civil society groups held a discussion in Delhi in late June. The stakeholders discussed that comprehensive programs tackling a wide range of pollutants can successfully solve the problem without sacrificing economic growth. Targeted solutions are possible, which can provide the largest exposure reductions and health benefits—improving and saving the lives of millions of people. 

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