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17 November 2021

Why smog, not Covid-19, could push Delhi back into lockdown

The Indian city, which is the world’s most polluted capital, is facing even more dangerous levels of air pollution.

By Philippa Nuttall

Already the schools are closed and people are being advised to work from home. Now the authorities are believed to be considering whether to place the 19 million inhabitants in lockdown. This isn’t because of a sudden resurgence of Covid, but because New Delhi is languishing in clouds of smog, which is causing dangerous levels of air pollution.

The fireworks and firecrackers set off to celebrate Diwali (4 November) were the final straw for a city already struggling with pollution. Now, the tiny particles known as PM2.5 that get into people’s lungs and blood causing respiratory problems, asthma and heart disease are at “severe” levels according to World Health Organisation guidelines. Over the past week, several areas of Delhi recorded levels of PM2.5 around 400 – a figure between zero and 50 is considered “good”, and between 51 and 100 is “satisfactory”.

“The pollution massively affects our daily lives,” said Lou Del Bello, an energy journalist based in the city. People go through the same rigmarole every November in “pollution season”. “We adjust our routines, add air purifiers to every room, ensure doors and windows are sealed – we seal ours with newspapers and tape – and wear anti-pollution masks whenever we step out, which is as little as possible,” she told the New Statesman. “Allergies, dizziness, migraines and lethargy are very common.

“People like my family who have the means to protect themselves remain mindful that while the situation is thoroughly depressing, they have it easy,” she added. “The reality of outdoor workers and poor people in general is much worse. They have no safeguards at all – and that’s what causes the real health emergency.”

Agricultural fires in northern India are the main culprit as farmers in Punjab continue to follow traditional methods such as stubble burning. Colder temperatures and slow wind speeds mean the particles from burning linger for longer and the pollution stays closer to ground level. But vehicle emissions, dust from construction work and coal are also to blame.

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“For the Delhi region, the contribution of coal to overall pollution would be roughly 2-5 per cent depending on the season,” said Nandikesh Sivalingam from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea). India’s main coal belt is far from Delhi. The figure may sound low, but in terms of impact, emissions from coal plants are not insignificant, he insisted.

Indeed, in recent days, Indian regulators have closed six of the 11 coal-fired power plants within a 300-kilometre radius of Delhi until “at least” the end of November. This is good news and a move the government was unwilling to countenance in the past, said Sivalingam. 

However, this is only a short-term measure. Research by Crea shows that at the most basic level, all power stations should take measures to reduce emissions as they were mandated to do back in 2015. Retrofitting power plans in the Delhi region would reduce pollution and save 3,000-5,000 lives across the country, and significantly cut lost work days and cases of asthma, said Crea.

“The gains would be much much higher still if we considered a coal phase-out at the national level,” said Sivalingam.

But such a radical move is not on the cards in the immediate future at least. India led the charge at the closing session of Cop26 on Saturday (13 November) to water down the language on coal in the final agreement from a “phase out” to a “phase down”. The country argued that it needs coal to develop. But continued reliance on coal will not help Delhi tackle climate change or clean up its air – the city has been ranked as the world’s most polluted capital in the world for the last three years.

[See also: The good, the bad and the ugly: What did Cop26 achieve?]

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