At the Stockholm+50 conference, Dr Arvind Kumar, a New Delhi-based chest surgeon, displayed lung x-rays of children to demonstrate how breathing Delhi air made everyone a smoker, even the new-born.
No wonder then, even as the residents of Delhi, one of the most-polluted cities in the world, welcome the recent directive from Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) to ban the use of coal in industrial, domestic and other miscellaneous applications in the entire Delhi-NCR region from January 1, 2023, questions are being raised about the efficacy of the order, and the exemption granted to thermal power plants that use ‘low-sulphur coal’.
The CAQM was established in August 2021, and is currently India’s highest authority on air pollution. According to current estimates, 1.7 million tonnes of coal is used annually by industries in the NCR, and the fuel contributes significantly to the region’s air pollution levels. The NCR comprises cities from the states of Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, in addition to the capital city of New Delhi.
The June 3 CAQM order says that the ban on the use of coal will come in force with effect from October 1 in areas having piped natural gas (PNG) infrastructure and supply. Industries that are likely to face issues related to availability of PNG have been given an exemption till December 31, and the coal ban for them will be applicable from January 1, 2023. The commission also specified the permissible levels of emissions for particulate matter (PM), SO2, NOx, and CO2.
Effectively, as per the directive, all the industries using coal have six months to switch to PNG or biomass fuel, otherwise they will face closure. However, in absence of a clear action plan to help these industries transition, there is widespread scepticism on the efficacy of this latest order in abating air pollution.
Exemption has also been granted to certain industries involved in metal melting, smelting, heating, and refining processes that require specific temperature and calorific value, and also industries with standalone cupola-based foundries, which mandatorily require a carbon feed stock, for “industrial application only in regions beyond the jurisdiction of GNCTD”.
According to Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), in 2020, Delhi alone sourced 33.6 percent of its power needs from coal based thermal power plants with the rest from gas-fired plants. The coal power plants around Delhi account for over 60 percent of the total particulate matter emissions from all industries as well as 45 percent of SO2, 30 percent of NOx, and over 80 percent of mercury.
In 2015, the Union environment ministry issued a notification with amended rules allowing thermal power plants within 10 kilometres of the NCR and in cities with more than 1 million population to comply with new emission norms by installing Flue Gas Desulpherisation (FGD) and Electrostatic Precipitators (ESP) systems by the end of 2022. But only six units at two thermal power plants have so far installed FGD. With two deadlines already elapsed, the first was December 2017 and the second was December 2019, the power plants are yet to comply with the prescribed emission standards citing prohibitive costs. An easier way of reducing sulphur is washing coal, a directive from the MoEFCC to that effect was put out in the mid-1990’s, but none of the power plants follow that order either.
Given the brazen non-compliance, i t is not surprising that there is such widespread scepticism around the latest announcement. Speaking to this author, Dr Kumar said: “The devil is in the details, and a lack of a detailed plan on how this ban will be implemented takes away some of the excitement around this announcement. Such a ban will have implications on the livelihoods and economy, and without a detailed roadmap of implementation, it is too early to celebrate this decision.”
Incidentally according to a study by CEEW in 2021, the 11 coal-fired power plants in the NCR contributed 7 percent to Delhi's PM2.5 pollution on an average between October 2020 and January 2021, while vehicles contributed 14 percent.
‘Too little, too late’ is generally the case when it comes to environmental protection in India. The latest directive from the CAQM is a step in the right direction, but for it to be effective it cannot have double standards and give a free pass to thermal power plants. The fact is that almost all the coal-fired power plants are anyway running at sub-optimal capacity of about 20-30 percent, and yet are the major contributors to Delhi’s air pollution.The CAQM must shut down all coal plants in Delhi-NCR at the earliest even as it works on solutions to pollution from construction, vehicles, and stubble burning.