Technology alone isn’t the solution: on the air pollution crisis

To tackle air pollution, we also need to reimagine and rethink our use of urban space

In the annals of the story of air pollution, December 3, 2017 will likely become a pivotal moment. On Day 2 of the final Test match between India and Sri Lanka in Delhi, bowlers Lahiru Gamage and Suranga Lakmal left the Kotla cricket ground early in the game complaining of breathing difficulties. For the first time in Test cricket, a match was disrupted because of air pollution. Indian captain Virat Kohli later asked publicly what Indians are doing about it.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing at the Delhi and Central governments for not being prepared for the dreadful air quality episodes during north India’s winter season. Most people, across party lines, have been nervous about this winter ever since Diwali in 2016, when an unexpected confluence of conditions caused terrifyingly high concentrations of particulates and a witch’s brew of indeterminate gases.


No government can eliminate air pollution within the span of a single term in office. Neither the previous United Progressive Alliance government nor the current National Democratic Alliance government is alone culpable — business, the media, and the middle and upper classes are equally to blame. In fact, the government may not even have the tools to ‘solve’ the problem of air pollution in our cities. It may take years of worse conditions before things get better, unless some transformational alternatives are seriously considered. You need not be a cynic or a pessimist to see why this is so. Air pollution science has an almost artless arithmetical logic, simple in its details.

Explaining urban air pollution

Urban air pollution refers largely to the mixture of gases and small particles in the lowest hundred or so metres, a result of human activity associated with vehicles, road dust, domestic cooking and heating, power plants and other industries nearby, diesel generator sets, and the open burning of waste.

In Delhi, in recent weeks, concentrations of particulates below 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre in size, which settle deep in the lungs, were 22 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard. In November 2016, they were 16 times the standard. Other cities are slightly better, but still worse than the standard. Polluting gases are mostly colourless and odourless and include carbon monoxide, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, ozone, and volatile organic compounds. Monitoring air pollution requires well-calibrated and spatially well-represented networks of measurement equipment, which do not exist in most parts of India.


It is logical to expect things to get worse before they improve. Air pollution depends on meteorological factors, but primarily on how much is emitted. This is the number of polluters times the rate of emissions per source. In principle, the amount of pollution from each brick kiln, truck or two-wheeler, car, power plant or field can be estimated. The total pollution is the sum of all the activities times the pollution per activity.

We already know that the number of polluters will rise with population and economic growth. The trick has been to try to find ways to reduce the emissions per activity, referred to as emissions intensity.

Emissions intensity can be divided into technological and non-technological elements. In cars, for instance, engine technology that uses less polluting fuels could improve efficiency. Cars now offer the tantalising prospect of reducing emissions intensity to zero, with battery and other energy-storage technologies. But it will take at least three decades for the current fleet to turn over sufficiently towards zero-emission vehicles, before their contribution to air pollution reduces significantly.

However, this is not sufficient if the total number of cars increases or people drive a lot more. It is vital, therefore, to pay attention to non-technological aspects such as urban planning, to reduce driving, and to increase cycling, walking, and use of public transport.

The need for travel may also have to go down by voluntary reductions in consumption, not viewed as loss of welfare but rather as opportunities to enhance leisure time, health, and recreation. This would be a reduction in activity, not just in emissions intensity.

Policies needed

It would be criminal to ignore the plight of millions who are likely to have severely compromised lives because of excessive air pollution. Using the best available technologies for various sources is absolutely essential. Other ways of reducing emissions intensity are also needed.

But, it is just as important to take back urban space for use by people, not their machines. This would mean a great reimagining and rethinking of urban space with expanded walking, non-motorised cycling, waterways, and footpaths. Many cities in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas have shown how this can be done, and several Indian mayors and bureaucrats are already familiar with these models.

There are also opportunities to reduce polluting activities in other sectors such as power generation and industrial production. This would mean reducing emissions intensity, but also avoiding certain activities or substituting them with others. Such approaches also offer co-benefits such as improved health, reduced carbon emissions and new forms of collaboration across social class.

Policymakers now rely almost entirely on technology, technologists and technocratic views by economists for policymaking, thus offering a limited view of the problem and its solutions. They also need to overcome the corruptive and overwhelming influence of motor vehicle manufacturers, power producers, developers, and other large stakeholders on decisions taken. While small changes in a few cities and some protests have been seen, other transformative movements are needed by voters in partnership with social institutions to take back urban space.

There are many reasons why there could be political support for policies to promote more democratically driven land use and transport. Mainly, this is because alliances can potentially be made across many social classes.

Unlike water pollution, where the better off can buy or use filtered water, the rich cannot pay their way out of air pollution. While they may not be as exposed to the worst levels suffered by the very poor living in informal settlements on roadsides, filters and hermetically sealed living spaces offer only temporary reductions and the fantasy of clean air. In fact, ozone, a dangerous air pollutant, can eat into filters, just as badly as it can destroy the lungs of even healthy youth.

It is not ethically appropriate to delay the resolution of deadly air pollution in cities for an entire generation that would suffer greatly in the interim. If there are sustainable modes that are worth pursuing, why not have more living laboratories of such social experiments around land use and transport?

Sudhir C. Rajan is the author of ‘The Enigma of Automobility’ and Professor, Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Sujatha Byravan is a scientist working on science, technology and policy

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:59:19 AM |

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