Photo: Straits Times

Budget for clean air should focus on reducing emissions at source, not wasteful ‘solutions’

The Supreme Court’s order directing the central and Delhi state government to move quickly on installing smog towers in Delhi will lead to a waste of public money, say environmentalists and air pollution scientists.

“Assuming that we can vacuum away our outdoor air pollution problem is not only a waste of tax-payers money, but also highly unscientific. If there is one lesson to learn from the COVID lockdowns, then it is the fact that we can clean our air and our act only by controlling the emissions from all the sources,” says Sarath Guttikunda, director of Urban Emissions, an air pollution information, research and analysis repository. Other air pollution analysts and researchers say that smog towers are one of the most wasteful expenditures of tax money. Anyone with even basic knowledge of the science of air pollution knows that only reducing emissions at source can bring down pollution. Jhatkaa, an Indian campaigning organisation that builds grassroots citizen power, has been running a campaign against smog towers since March 2020, giving the science and rationale behind it.

“When the bucket is overflowing and your house is flooded, you don’t go looking for a mop, you turn off the tap. The only solution to pollution is to stop pumping pollutants in the air. Smog towers are a criminal waste of money and anyone with basic common sense can see that,” says Brikesh Singh of the Clean Air Collective, an unbranded collective of over 100 think-tanks, researchers and activist groups.

These reactions come after the court pulled up the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Delhi government on July 21, giving them seven days to comply with its direction on installing smog towers in the Capital.

‘We are shocked at the attitude of the respondents with respect to installation of smog towers, which were supposed to be installed within three months and for which an agreement was to be entered into and the order was passed on 13 January after obtaining the requisite reports’, the court said.

Earlier today, a furious Justice Arun Misra at the Supreme Court was reported sternly rebuking IIT-Bombay, saying the court would “punish” the engineering education institute for withdrawing from a government project to install a smog tower project in Delhi. Justice Misra threatened contempt proceedings, saying “I can’t tolerate this nonsense.” Environmentalists retweeted this exchange, questioning why the court was pressing this so urgently when science doesn’t back smog towers being of any use in reducing outdoor air pollution.

The court’s original order had come under severe criticism even when it was first passed in January this year. Even before the order was passed, awareness and advocacy non-profit Care for Air wrote an open letter to the Supreme Court on December 1, requesting it to not promote “band-aid fixes” like smog towers and other outdoor air-purifiers to deal with north India’s debilitating winter smog. At that time, campaigning for Delhi state’s Legislative Assembly elections was getting into high gear, and the main political parties and their candidates were promising to clean the city’s polluted air – the first time that pollution came up as a poll agenda.

It is heartening to note that life-threatening air pollution has at least become a political issue from the time when politicians denied its existence or its fatality. In November 2019, a debate on air pollution had taken place in Parliament, another first. Voters across the city and social classes have demanded clean air as their right. But this political pressure has also thrown up bad solutions. One such group of so-called ‘solutions’ is smog towers, smog guns and vacuum cleaners to clean outdoor air. Such technologies belittle the problem on the one hand and on the other, they give false hope to those affected by air pollution. As Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, recently said, masks and smog towers provide more reassurance than actual protection.

This is exactly what politicians would like to take advantage of.  The Gautam Gambhir Foundation installed a ‘smog tower’ in Lajpat Nagar in early January, costing ₹7 lakh, according to media reports. Independent global air pollution experts have found it is not helping reduce pollution by even marginal amounts – even in its immediate vicinity. Four of the five experts, associated with Care for Air, visited the tower within the first three weeks of its inauguration on January 3 and found that PM2.5 some distance away from the tower was lower than PM2.5 close to the tower. 

“I did a video shoot near the tower for 3 hours. There was absolutely no reduction in PM levels next to this smog tower and within a 150m radius on 3 different angles,” says Barun Aggarwal, CEO of clean air consultancy firm Breathe Easy Consultants, who visited the site on January 10 with his industry calibrated DustTrak monitor- an instrument used to accurately measure particulate matter concentrations. “I saw a man standing there with a local handheld meter taking readings. I found out he works for the company that made the tower, but he seemed completely clueless about how to take readings.”, says Aggarwal.

Things were worse three days later, on January 13, when atmospheric scientists and researchers Bhargav Krishna and Joshua Apte visited the tower. Its inbuilt monitor measured PM at 636, as photographed and tweeted by Krishna and Apte. Their photos and tweets also showed that some of the filters were already damaged and air wasn’t reaching the bottom outlets. On January 31, when Tanushree Ganguly who works on air pollution section at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, visited the tower, it wasn’t working.

Guttikunda has shown a back-of-the-envelope calculation for outdoor air-cleaning. Even assuming 100% efficiency at all times, any outdoor smog tower can purify only 0.00007233796% of the air every hour. Such towers are unviable and ineffectual as shown by the towers installed during the 2010 Commonwealth Games held in Delhi, which captured only 2.5kg of the nearly 5 million kg of particulate matter and dust that Delhi produces every month, Guttikunda analysed.

China’s giant smog-sucking tower installed in 2016 was found to be inefficient by the China Forum of Environmental Journalists after a 50-day trial. Smog-free towers called WAYU, developed and installed by IIT and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Delhi in 2018, ended up as dustbins due to their ineffectiveness.  

Outdoor air purifiers are inadvisable and must be rejected by the public. Such installations give the public a false sense of complacency and assurance. Governments support them in spite of the science and evidence against them as it helps them show their voters that they are solving the problem. At this point of a health emergency, we need strong actions that yield a real and significant reduction in PM2.5 levels. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated ₹4,400 crore on February 1 this year towards clean air in this budget. The 15th Finance Commission was considering creating funds for local bodies to clean up the air. These funds should be targeted towards reducing emissions at source through improved industrial filters, faster transition to renewable energy, improved public transportation and the shutdown of old thermal power plants that do not meet emission standards.

Views expressed in this article are personal.

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