A glimpse of blue: Lockdowns enforced to clamp down on the spread of COVID-19 had the unintended consequence of temporarily cleaning up the air even in regions with some of the worst air in the world | Photo: Free Press Journal

The 2020 Air Pollution news round up

The year in which a global pandemic forced a reassessment of the complex implications of toxic air on public health

Lockdowns: Indian cities meet 2024 clean air targets, rare view of Himalayas, historic drop in global CO2 emissions

Restricted economic activity saw pollution levels plummet across the country. The lockdown offered researchers an opportunity to track baseline pollution levels in major Indian cities – crucial information that had so far remained elusive. The lockdown measures resulted in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru achieving 95% of their 2024 NCAP targets in just 74 days. The restrictions cleaned the air enough for people to witness, for the first time in decades, a view of the Himalayas from their houses.  

As a result, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel and industry could drop by 7% in 2020 – 34 billion tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) this year – a fall of 2.4GtCO2 compared to 2019,  Global Carbon Project (GCP)  stated. The CO2 emissions fell by 12% in the US, 11% in the EU, 9% in India and 1.7% in China.

India announced another air pollution law, but country remains worst in PM2.5 pollution  

A new law was announced to tackle air pollution, but there was little relief from toxic air. A “permanent authority” was created to check air pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR). But farm fires in Punjab and Haryana reached new peaks. Experts called the new law a distraction.  The newly appointed Commission for Air Quality Management vowed to take steps to lessen air pollution.  

India had the worst exposure to PM2.5 in the world this year, according to the State of Global Air 2020 (SOGA 2020) report. In addition, the country remained the world’s largest emitter of sulphur dioxide (SO2), but its levels dropped significantly by 6% in 2019, compared to 2018, according to Greenpeace India and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) study. India’s green court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), ordered the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to set up 175 air quality monitoring stations across the country using the environmental compensation fund (EC). 

In a major setback to laws that seek to improve ambient air quality, new environment norms allowed power plants to use coal irrespective of ash content. The environment ministry dropped the 2014 notification that mandated coal plants located 500km from the pit-head to use coal with less than 34% ash content. 

And lastly, a majority of India’s coal plants (70%) will miss the 2022 deadline to follow new emission norms that were set way back in 2015. 

LG CEO, directors arrested in styrene gas leak case, Madras HC seals Vedanta smelter

The Andhra Pradesh police arrested 12 people, including the CEO and two directors of South Korean firm LG Polymers Ltd, two months after styrene gas leaked at their plant in Visakhapatnam, killing 15 people and injuring 500 others. Three officials have been suspended for negligence. 

The company’s managing director and CEO Sunkey Jeong, technical director DS Kim (both South Korean nationals) were among those who were arrested a day after the state panel submitted a report to chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, blaming the LG Polymers management for its negligence. India’s green court held the South Korean firm LG Polymers “absolutely” liable for the deaths. The Union ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) said the company was operating without environmental clearances.

In Madras, the high court refused Vedanta’s plea to reopen the company’s copper smelter two years after it was closed following the deaths of 13 unarmed anti-pollution protesters in police firing. Vedanta, accused of polluting the environment, had denied the charges saying the unit was shut in “political response” to deaths in police firing. However, the court centred its verdict on the issue of pollution saying the polluter pays principle needs to be applied.

India leapfrogs to Euro VI fuel, makers of Merc fined by US over cheat device 

Two years after Delhi switched to Euro VI, or BS VI (Bharat stage VI) grade fuel,  which is ultra-low in sulphur content, petrol pumps in the rest of India this year switched to the world’s cleanest petrol and diesel as oil companies rolled out Euro-VI emission compliant fuels without disruption or a price increase. India jumped from BS-IV grade fuel straight to BS-VI grade, equivalent to Euro-VI fuel. Earlier, petrol pumps supplied Euro IV (BS IV) grade petrol and diesel, which has a sulphur content of 50 parts per million (ppm). BS VI emission grade has sulphur content of only 10 ppm. 

In the diesel emissions cheating software case, German car company Daimler, makers of Mercedes Banz, reached a nearly $3 billion settlement with US regulators and vehicle owners. 

Air pollution linked with COVID-19 deaths, Indians lose 5.2 yrs life expectancy to dirty air 

In two separate researches, it was found that 15% of all COVID-19 deaths around the world are attributable to dirty air, and most significantly, a small rise in long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with an 11% increase in deaths from COVID-19.  The researchers said the evidence was now strong enough that levels of dirty air must be considered a key factor in handling coronavirus outbreaks.

An average Indian loses 5.2 years of life expectancy to air pollution, while the average north Indian loses it by eight years, concluded the study by Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), which used the 2018 pollution levels as a base. Life expectancy of an average person in Delhi is reduced by 9.4 years and those living in Lucknow by 10.3 years, the study stated. 

India ranked second on the global list in terms of lost life years behind Bangladesh, while Nepal, Pakistan and Singapore made up the top five on the list.

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