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India’s Air Pollution

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The India Gate monument in New Delhi, India, enveloped by a blanket of smog

While all the dialogue on horrible air pollution in the world focuses on China, it’s really awful in India as well. Josh Busby muses on his recent experience with the air of New Dehli and Mumbai to wonder what improvements India might make in pollution and how it might deal with climate change:

We often talk about climate change policy producing co-benefits for other areas and concerns, as if climate is the primary driver of policy. However, as Sarang Shidore and I argue in a piece we wrote last year on China for the Paulson Institute, that logic has it backwards: dirty air creates demand for policies that potentially produce co-benefits for the climate.

In India, Delhi’s air quality has created a political opening for the local government to enact a 15 day experiment of an odd-even driving scheme, limiting drivers to certain days of the week based on the numbers on their license plates.

As Arunabha Ghosh’s institute has documented, it’s unclear if the policy is working. The sources of air pollution of particulate matter (so-called pm2.5) include many other sources, some of which may be more important than commuter vehicle exhaust, including commercial diesel truck emissions, dust from building construction, power plant emissions, and burning of agricultural waste.

But, as Johannes Urpelainen notes, it may not be as important just yet if the policy works. Rather, the local government has put down a marker that this is an area for policy, and public expectations will likely drive further innovation in this space. While New Delhi as the country’s seat of government provides a special sort of pressure for action in the same way that Beijing does, other cities in India are also polluted and may face similar demand for action. Together, the demand for cleaner urban air could lead to a variety of policies that produce climate co-benefits.

Not all policies intended to reduce air pollution will produce co-benefits for climate (relocating coal burning power plants further away from major cities for one wouldn’t). Still, concerns about air pollution may be a far more potent driver of policy innovation to support renewables, fuel efficiency, and mass transit than climate ever would be on its own.

I’ve long been pretty skeptical that India will be able to manage its environmental problems to become a long-term world power. The messiness of its democracy means that change happens very slowly, while those environmental problems are enormous and growing. I think China has a better chance to change because of its command economy, although that’s obviously not easy either. But we need to hope India moves ahead here, both for the good of its own people and for the rest of us.

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