It’s time to focus on the toxic air we breathe

NITI Aayog’s draft energy policy ignores the health impacts of energy choices

August 11, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Environmental Pollution

Environmental Pollution

On June 27, 2017, the N iti Aayog released the draft National Energy Policy . It invited comments from the public to help strengthen its perspectives on some of the complex issues surrounding energy security. Several public policy research and civil society organisations partook in the process and critiqued the policy from various standpoints.

Public health and growth

An important aspect that the draft policy ignores is public health, especially in the context of the energy mix envisaged under the NITI Ambition Scenario. The Ambition Scenario is a tool to arrive at a range of possible energy futures for the energy sector till 2040. The range presents the scenarios which India may follow if it were to follow a business-as-usual path versus if it were to transition to an ambitious pathway which is cleaner and more sustainable.

In the document, there are 14 references to health, of which only five relate to public health in the context of household cooking fuel. The rest are analogies to describe the health of the coal sector and discoms. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that air pollution is the number one environmental health risk. In 2012, about three million premature deaths were attributable to ambient air pollution. The cumulative toll in terms of illness and impairment is likely to be greater.

According to environmental health researchers, children represent the subgroup of the population most affected by air pollution and will be the primary beneficiaries of policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Moreover, research has also established links between public health and a nation’s economic growth. The estimated cost of ambient air pollution in terms of the value of lives lost and ill health in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, India and China is more than $3.5 trillion annually. Similarly, a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that the aggregate cost of premature deaths due to air pollution was more than $5 trillion worldwide in 2013 alone. In East and South Asia, welfare losses related to air pollution were the equivalent of about 7.5% of GDP.

Given that every sector’s decisions, including the energy sector, can have repercussions on determinants of health, the WHO’s Health in All Policies (HiAP) framework was established wherein health considerations are made in policymaking across different sectors, such as power, transport, agriculture and housing, that could influence health. In keeping with HiAP, the Health and Family Welfare Ministry (MHFW) established a steering committee with the aim to garner multi-sectoral commitment to address the issue of air pollution in India. Furthermore, the National Health Policy of 2017 views reducing air pollution as vital to India’s health trajectory. However, the National Energy Policy neither reflects nor supports the commitment outlined by the MHFW.

Vision documents like the National Energy Policy have to strive to minimise the unavoidable health impacts of energy production, and their associated health costs, especially given the policy’s stated objectives of sustainability and economic growth. The policy should include a health impact assessment framework to weigh the health hazards and health costs associated with the entire life cycle of existing and future energy projects and technologies. For instance, there is no method under the current policy regime, as proposed by the NITI Aayog, to evaluate the health impacts of coal’s contribution to mercury and fine particulate pollution, or the risk of radiation with envisaged increase in nuclear power, or the occupational exposures to silica and cadmium during photovoltaic panel manufacturing.

The WHO’s initial findings from an expert consultation on Health Indicators of Sustainable Energy provide a good outline to kick-start a similar exercise in India. It lays out a few core and expanded indicators that can help monitor the progress of a nation’s energy policy. The core indicators address issues related to health equity where health impact assessments become an integral part of energy policy design and implementation. The expanded indicators stress on the need to develop baseline data by generating emission inventories and source apportionment of urban air pollution that can inform mitigation and intervention policies. A nation’s energy policy can have a huge bearing on society and health. It is thus important to ensure that policies directed at energy security are compatible with public health goals.

Dharmesh Shah is a Chennai- based environmental policy researcher

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