#10 - The clock is ticking

Now is the time to start thinking about the looming pollution crisis

#10 - The clock is ticking

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During the lockdown, the Himalayas were visible from Punjab - Anshul Chopra

Goodbye blue sky

  • As Covid restrictions ease, air quality in Delhi starts to deteriorate again
  • But this year the coronavirus response could inspire a solution

We all have a favourite lockdown story. Some may involve an elaborate cooking experiment, others an impossibly clear horizon. An unlikely blue sky over Delhi is my personal highlight of these strange times. Spending just one winter in the world’s most polluted capital is enough to understand why.

Around the end of October, Delhi starts to see the occasional foggy day. By mid November, it’s wrapped in smog more often than not, and Delhiites then need to wait until around March for a good day with acceptably breathable air. For most Indians living in polluted cities, bad air has become part of the seasonal cycle, like the monsoon. But I suspect this year is going to be harder to accept after the lockdown gave us a taste of what it feels like to breathe easy.

We now have three months to prepare for ‘pollution season’. As the lockdown eases pollution is already creeping back up, and if something is to be done now is the time before it is too late.

A looming winter crisis

Scientists in Delhi are discussing ways to avoid a new winter crisis, particularly after various studies have connected toxic air with a higher incidence of coronavirus. Regardless of any link to Covid-19, it is estimated that poor air quality in India contributed to the loss of 1.2 million lives in 2017 alone, also increasing people’s chances to develop heart disease, chronic respiratory conditions and cancer.

The problem is that in India air pollution is almost always due to an inextricable cocktail of road traffic, stubble burning, emissions from heavy industries, dust from construction sites and more. And the country is still badly unprepared to figure out what’s going on on any given day and untangle the mess.


A global study out today by the NGO OpenAQ finds that India is not alone. More than half of the world’s countries, collectively home to 1.4 billion people, don’t produce public air quality data. At least 30 governments, including India, China, Russia and Brazil generate real time data but don’t make them easily accessible.

In January 2019, India launched its National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), with the goal to reduce particulate matter pollution by 20 to 30 percent by 2024, with 2017 as a baseline year, in 102 initial cities. To achieve that, municipalities are required to come up with individual plans, focussing on agriculture, mobility, waste management, urban planning, transportation, and - crucially - air quality monitoring.

But with a budget of 3 billion rupees (just over $42 million), the money is nowhere near enough, even just to buy a sufficient number of monitoring units to measure substances such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and more. The independent research group UrbanEmissions.Info estimated that India needs about 4000 stations, but as of June 2020 it has just 230. Their review, compiled in partnership with the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), found that only 25 of the 102 city action plans contained data on emissions from different sources.

The NCAP plans to increase the number of monitoring stations to 1000 by 2024, explains the founder of Urban Emissions, Sarath Guttikunda, “because they acknowledge that they are very important in understanding spatial and temporal patterns.” But whether this will happen or not “is a really big question, because funding is just not there,” he says.

And you can’t really fight air pollution if you don’t know where it comes from.

What to do?

Are Indian cities doomed to another pollution crisis this winter? Probably. But there are strategies that could help stave off the worst of it.

Some are long term - for example, using satellites to track pollution. Sagnik Dey, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, worked on an experiment to map out PM2.5 pollution trends in Delhi over 15 years. Once the satellite database is expanded to cover the whole of India, it will provide important complementary measurements for air pollution management, he says, although it will never replace ground monitoring.

But satellite coverage remains a distant prospect. If you think about the short term, the problem becomes more political. India has a compliance issue, Dey says. Regulations are there, and they can work for the biggest industries that are easier to scrutinise, but smaller businesses or the informal sector are virtually impossible to control.

The Hammer and the Dance

But maybe something can still be done. Have you ever heard of ‘The Hammer and the Dance’? It’s a popular metaphor for what the coronavirus response will look like as lockdowns start to ease everywhere. The ‘dance’ marks the phase when we all get out and back to our old lives, the ‘hammer’ represents the new lockdown imposed when cases start soaring again. The two phases, explains the journalist who came up with the idea, will have to alternate for a long time, until a vaccine is found or we develop herd immunity.

What does this have to do with air pollution in Delhi? During the lockdown we enjoyed clean air, but that came at a cost that is simply too high. What if, a bit like the hammer and the dance, we could anticipate a bad day or a bad week and surgically shut down only those pollution sources that would precipitate the situation?

“We now have pretty good forecasting for weather as well as air quality,” Dey says. “When you reach hazardous levels of pollution, no matter what activities you shut down, the pollution will not disperse,” he explains, “but if we can catch the spike before it happens, then it can be stopped.” In Delhi, this may mean selectively shutting down construction sites or some power plants, or restricting car traffic.

This won’t grant us the blue skies we had in March, but it may hit that sweet spot between keeping the city going and protecting people from a menace that, albeit more familiar than the coronavirus, is equally dangerous to their health.

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