Pollution is now a political subject, that's its big success: TERI chief Ajay Mathur

The Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute on what to expect from the Katowice Climate Change Conference and how to tackle pollution

Ajay Mathur is the Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). He is also a member of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority and has been part of India’s negotiating team in earlier editions of the United Nations-convened Conference of the Parties (COP). In this interview, Mr. Mathur says we shouldn’t expect a big bang result next month at the Katowice Climate Change Conference, and explains how the air pollution problem is not insurmountable. Excerpts:

Next month, the COP will convene in Katowice, Poland, to finalise the rule book on how the 2015 Paris commitments should be implemented. Do you expect major headway?

The 2018 COP was always seen as the one where the rules for Paris would be put in place. Over the years there’s been a lot of discussion on that. At several meetings leading up to the COP, we’ve seen a lot of convergence on the rules regarding transparency (mainly on how nations will report their greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating actions) such that when you’re reporting, it is credible. This was a group of countries that was led by India’s Environment Secretary and was very successful as well as able to close discussions and get people together.

However, transparency is just one aspect of this rule book. There is still a huge degree of difference on issues related to financing. The developing countries believe that they cannot have certainty of action till international financial flows are known. So, they have to be reported ex ante (based on forecasts rather than on actuals). The developed countries don’t like it at all.

But isn’t this what the dialogue in every COP is usually about: Where’s the money that has been promised: about a $100 billion dollars annually by the developed countries, until 2020?

It’s absolutely clear that if you focus on this subject alone, there’s bound to be disappointment. I can’t see either the developed countries or the developing countries moving on this. But the point is that there are newer areas, like transparency, where we have moved ahead. The issue is, how will the political leadership be taken in Katowice, so that we can have an agreement on a rule book? This agreement could well be, say, here’s the core of the rule book and here are five other things that need to be agreed on and we we will do it over the next, say, one year, because Paris doesn’t kick into place until 2020. It could even mean that a rule book will be ready only in 2020. We were very ambitious and thought it would be ready in 2018 but we aren’t, so that’s fine.

But wouldn’t firming up a rule book mean that countries would have to agree to fixed targets on setting greenhouse gas emissions limits for themselves?

Absolutely not. As of now, the convergence is on transparency: How we will collect data, report the data, be sure that the reported data meet an acceptable level of quality control. If we agree to move ahead on obligations of the Paris deal, this is how you would do it. It is more about building trust that all of us are using the same kind of data. There may be differences in the (duties of) developed and developing countries but at least the elements are in place. We should go to Katowice expecting that at least the elements of the rule book are in place.

Through the years, there’s been concern that whenever India attends high-level meetings, it lacks its own empirical data and so ends up getting snowed in by modelling and projections made by others. Can the convergence towards transparency address this?

I would dispute that Indian experts are ‘snowed in’ by others’ data. What is true is that the level of analysis we do at a global level is more limited than what is done by others. What transparency will mean for us and other countries is that the basis for future projections and the basis for seeing whether we are actually achieving what we have promised is going to be much more superior than in the past. There were years in which we weren’t sure of data from many countries. Katowice is not a Paris but an essential meeting to operationalise Paris. There’s another thing in the rule book that relates to ‘stocktake’. It’s been decided that every few years from 2022, we will see how the world is doing as far as their actions are concerned. Are they on track to achieve what is promised? The stocktake will tell us that. As you can imagine, if we have poor data, we will make poor decisions.

Among India’s commitments is to achieve 100 GW of solar power by 2022. Several reports seem to suggest that we will fall short, particularly due to the slow uptake in rooftop solar. Will that be a major problem? Do we have time to fix this problem?

One part of the answer is that it is possible that 60 GW of grid-connected solar photovoltaic (like in solar farms) can become large enough to meet the target. With rooftop solar there are a large number of implementation problems and policy issues that we are still trying to understand. Only a few years ago, our concept of solar PV, especially in rooftop solar, was that it would be used only in isolated places where electricity would be available sporadically. Now, we have a situation where it is possible that by the year-end or next March, every home in the country will be able to access a wired connection. As per the Saubhagya scheme, I believe 94% of the homes are already connected. This has a different meaning for micro-grids, or mini-grids, because they were envisioned as being completely isolated. Now it means that it will take care of local power supply needs and anything additional would go into the grid, and if you need more power, you take it from the grid. In other words, it becomes grid-interactive. This means a completely different technical and business model.

Now, how can we operate this within a grid-operated system? Our meters are built for a one-way flow. We now need safety and isolation equipment that can be built for a two-way flow. We are used to electricity being produced at a higher voltage and being ‘stepped-down’ to come into your house. Now we need the lower voltage current produced in the house to be ‘stepped-up’ for giving back to the grid. All these things need to be put in one place. The other aspect is that electricity companies will now say, everybody wants to buy from me at the same time and sell to me at the same time. This means a huge amount of capacity for meeting night-time loads; and during the day, when electricity companies produce a lot, they have to buy. So, we also need to put all these things in place and have diversity in the rooftop solar grid system. These are things we are learning.

Then there are problems with urban planning. Say, I have a system in place and another taller building comes up which blocks out my solar system. What happens to my investment? Eventually it will all work. We are trying out 10 different things and two will work and become the ruling models.

TERI and the Automotive Research Association of India presented a study earlier this year that showed that cars and two-wheelers together contributed about 10% of the pollution caused by the transportation sector, which contributes 28% of the overall winter pollution load. This is not a small number. However you haven’t suggested a congestion charge or reigning in private vehicles during emergencies.

We need solutions that are necessary for Delhi. Let’s look at where the pollution comes from. One of the fastest-growing components is secondary particulate matter. They are not emitted as gases but become particles once they are in the atmosphere for some time. There are ammonium-based gases that are emitted and become particulate matter. If you ask me, the single largest impact is if we can address fires (biomass fires which also include fires from burning wood or for cooking). If we could completely switch over to gas and ensure uninterrupted supply of electricity, it would make a massive difference to pollution.

We just celebrated Diwali. There was a lot of hope for reduced emissions vis-à-vis the Environment Ministry’s pollution-restraining drives. However, we saw a blatant violation of the Supreme Court order on crackers. Don’t you think a lack of implementation is the key cause of Delhi’s air pollution problem?

The Supreme Court had said that crackers were only to be allowed from 8-10 p.m. That too green crackers. The data show that the day before Diwali was a clear day. There were hardly any crackers. Come Diwali evening and — just look at the data — crackers were lit with a vengeance. A friend who did this analysis said that the crackers burnt on Diwali night were no less than last year. And all illegal, as there were no green crackers. What this suggests is that private lighting of crackers from 8-10 p.m. is also a problem. Even if you have crackers that reduce emissions by x% but you have more crackers, reduction will be more than compensated. You will have the same problem.

We need to change the way crackers are used. We need to agree on an overall cap. If you want some equity around it, you could say that in each area there would be a locally organised community function and each of them would be given a permit to buy x amount of crackers. We need to control supply.

You’re a member of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority. How effective has this agency been as an implementing body to address sources of pollution?

First of all, the EPCA is not a direct implementing body. It can direct agencies to take steps, point out to them that there’s a problem emerging, and fix it. If rules are flouted, the committee can issue directions to check activities in the National Capital Region. Those are its strengths. I’m a new member of the EPCA and have only been able to attend one meeting. I see that the EPCA will increasingly focus on the kinds of action that can lead to change that is felt here and now. We have an extremely active chairperson who has got huge experience in this area and there is no reason to think that he cannot lead a larger group of people. I would like more real-time data to be available to the EPCA to help with its decision-making.

Has the government become better at addressing pollution or is it restricting itself to legislation?

What has changed is that pollution has entered into the public consciousness in a big way. Pollution is also now a political subject and that has been its big success.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 6:43:44 PM |

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