Dust matters in India

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There was a glimmer of good news visible through the Delhi smog this week with the launch of a market-based emissions trading scheme (ETS) for particulate matter (PM). A pilot has started at Surat in Gujarat. The scheme will apply to 350 industries in the locality and it will be scrutinised for wider rollout in the country.

China robustly started to tackle its industrial PM emitters a few years ago although the work remains on-going. In its wake India has increasingly made the wrong sort of headlines with horrifically high dust emissions. Delhi, for example, reportedly had PM2.5 emissions of over 440µg/m3 in January 2019. To give this some context, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) annual upper guideline figure for safe human exposure is 10µg/m3. Research by the Financial Times newspaper suggested that more than 40% of the Indian population is subject to annual PM2.5 emissions of over 50µg/m3.

Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) research reckons that if India were able to meet its national PM2.5 standard of 40µg/m3 then its population would live 1.8 years longer or 4.3 years longer if it met the WHO guideline level. The current situation is an unnecessary tragedy. In strictly structural terms the country’s productivity is being thrown away by damaging the health of its workforce. For comparison amongst other major cement producing countries, AQLI data placed China’s PM2.5 emissions at 39µg/m3, Indonesia at 22µg/m3, Vietnam at 20µg/m3 the US at 9µg/m3. These figures cover all industries in different conditions and climates. If the US can do it, why not the others?

Back on trading schemes, the famous ETS at the moment is the European one for CO2 emissions. Similar schemes are slowly appearing around the world as governments look at what the European Union (EU) did right and wrong. For example, South Africa started up a carbon tax in early June 2019. Yet as the supporting documents by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) point out there have been a variety of ETS systems’ over the years. The US’s Acid Rain Program is generally seen to have achieved significant reductions in SO2 and NOx emissions although the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) has continued this work. Chile even ran its own PM ETS in the 1990s although the outcomes have been disputed.

One problem with a CO2 ETS, and anthropomorphic or man-made climate change in general, is that it is intangible. Even if sea levels deluge major coastal cities, rising mean temperatures reduce agricultural yields and human populations contract sharply, people will still be arguing over the research and the causes. The beauty of a PM ETS is that if it works you can literally see and feel the results. A famous example here is the UK’s Clean Air Act in the 1950s that banished the fog/smog that London used to be famous for.

The Gujarat PM ETS is a pilot, the results of which will be considered by researchers from a number of US-based universities and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. Explicitly, the study plans to use a randomised control trial to compares its results against the command and control style approach used in the rest of the country. On the cement-side various Indian news stories have emerged as state pollution boards have increasingly started fining producers for emission limit breaches. Clearly the government is taking dust emissions seriously. Reduction is long overdue.

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