[Editorial] Lessons on Air Pollution from Beijing

What is happening in India now?

  • The NGT (National Green Tribunal) has started taking a new look at the old problem of air pollution. It has asked the government to list the causes.
  • The NGT had directed the environment ministry to modify the NCAP (National Clean Air Program).
  • The NCAP aims to reduce air pollution by 20-30% by 2024. It uses a ‘collaborative and participatory approach’ for this end. It sets targets, undertakes monitoring and emergency measures and even has a role for international organizations. However, the program is yet to make an impact.
  • The Supreme Court too has been asking questions as to why the ground results are negligible despite the compliance reports. It has also questioned the efforts of Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region.
  • The Court gave 24 hours to the central and Delhi government to give suggestions to control the air pollution.
  • The Solicitor General had responded that the Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region needs reworking.

Why would Beijing serve as a reference case for Delhi?

  • The UNEP (UN Environment Program) undertook a review of air pollution control in Beijing. This review gives useful insights for Indian policymakers with regards to the pollution in Delhi.
  • Both cities have comparable population sizes.
  • Both cities use the 3 stage system for addressing urban air pollution-
    1. End-of-pipe air pollution control
    2. Integrated measures that target primary air pollutants like SO2, NO2, PM10, and CO. The government plays a major role here.
    3. Focus on secondary pollutants that cause smogs i.e. particulate matter (especially PM2.5). A regional coordination mechanism is used here.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

What lessons can be learnt from Beijing’s experience?

  • The review points to a management system with the following features:
    1. Systematic planning
    2. Strong monitoring capacity
    3. Local standards
    4. Specific enforcement mechanism
    5. Public awareness

Monitoring and Warnings

  • A new model for network operation and quality control has been used. This gives early warning that helps inform measures to reduce pollution levels during adverse weather conditions.
  • When there is a forecast of heavy pollution, warnings are issued through the media atleast 24 hours in advance. This is in addition to the air quality reports and forecasts that are given out every day.
  • Beijing uses high resolution ‘air-land’ data from remote sensing satellites and laser radars for improved pollution monitoring. More than 1,000 PM2.5 sensors have been deployed throughout the city for accurate identification of periods of high emission and pollution hotspot.

Urbanization

  • What made the difference for Beijing’s air pollution control was its approach to urbanization and not a policy of resorting to restriction of vehicle ownership and travel, closing down polluting units and improved fuel standards.
  • Cities like Beijing, New York and London give more space for mixed land use spatial planning that minimize travel and for public transportation. However, as cities are transit centres with no peak-hour traffic, additional measures are needed.
  • The 1,000 km long 7th Ring Road of Beijing was constructed to ease up traffic. The metro link was operationalized even before the buildings cropped up.
  • Beijing has over 1.5 times more kilometres of metro (>550 km) than Delhi. It plans to add a 1,000 km more to its metro rail network.
  • Its has 30,000 low floor buses– over 8 times the number owned by the Delhi Transport Corporation.
  • 72% of travel in China is by public transport. In comparison, it is 37% in Japan, 17% in Europe and 10% in USA.

Vehicle policy

  • Particulate matter is the hardest air pollutant to control. It is mainly emitted from vehicular sources and traffic is a growing and distinct challenge.
  • A study in Beijing revealed that 2/3rd of PM2.5 is from local emissions and vehicular emissions account for 50% of the main source.
  • Among the mobile sources, on-road diesel vehicles constitute the largest proportion.
  • The focus of the policy has shifted to heavy-duty diesel vehicles from gasoline vehicles.
  • The most significant contribution to air quality improvement came from phasing out of older vehicles.
  • Beijing has set a target of 48 lakh charging points for electric vehicles by 2022.
  • Meanwhile, in Delhi, there are 2 times as many registered vehicles as in Beijing and this is growing faster than before. The debate is still going on about source apportionment.

Implementation

  • Local regulations seek to control the concentration of emission and the total emission. This has led to transformation and upgradation of the industrial production processes and the equipment used.
  • Economic incentives were formulated to address specific problems. Attractive subsidies were offered to polluting units that closed their units. Those that chose to keep such units open had to pay fees according to their emission concentration.
  • Municipal and state levels enforce the pollution control measures in a coordinated manner and each level has its own set of responsibilities and cooperation mechanism.
  • Enforcement teams at the municipal level perform specific inspection and supervision functions based on a detailed emission inventory. Serious cases are passed on to the state level.

Independent evaluations

  • The air quality management system is evaluated independently.
  • New challenges are analysed and recommendations for further improvement are provided by these independent reviews.

What is the way ahead?

  • Environmental concerns are framed in technical terms like pollutants and penalties. However, urban air pollution is linked to the urban form, transportation infrastructure, etc. The solutions to air pollution depend on the development stage.
  • The problem in Delhi isn’t the peculiar mix of administrative levels but their approach to the pollution problem using unverified claims, shifting responsibilities, statistical compliance and cosmetic steps.
  • The Commission has failed to address these issues with a coordinated plan.
  • Urban transformation is more of a social process, involving people, lifestyles and services, rather than a physical problem of technology, regulation and congestion.
  • The Commission’s focus should be on the cities’ organization and collaboration among the stakeholders.
  • Our pollution control system must move away from mere coordination among discrete administrative units and an enforcement mechanism of taking matters to the court.

Conclusion:

Revisiting the UNEP’s review of Beijing’s pollution control strategy provides valuable lessons for the efforts to rein in Delhi’s air pollution. NCR’s pollution control plan needs a breath of fresh air.

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