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Pollution drop could pressure India’s energy policymakers

The lockdown has markedly cleaned the country’s air. Will citizens demand permanent change or will economics trump climate concerns?

India’s nationwide lockdown, which began in late March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, has been one of the strictest in the world. Travel and transport have been severely curtailed, with a subsequent material downward impact on economic activity. Having been extended through April and the first two weeks of May, a phased easing process began from 17 May.

In a significant silver lining to the economic downturn, the country has recorded its lowest levels of pollution in decades—including in hugely symbolic ways. The grand Himalayan mountain range, otherwise permanently cloaked in smog, is visible from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The Ganges river, sacred to India’s Hindu majority, has never been cleaner—somewhat ironically given the billions of dollars poured into previous efforts to rejuvenate its polluted waters.

A study by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) university in Delhi concludes that, if the current lower levels of air pollution were sustained, India's annual death toll could fall by 650,000. More than a million people are estimated to die every year in India due to pollution-related respiratory diseases.

<20 – India's AQI in April

According to the federal government’s system of air quality and weather forecasting and research (Safar) initiative, all main pollution sources—whether CO, NOx or particulate matter (PM)—have fallen during the lockdown period. India’s overall air quality index (AQI) has improved by nearly half, with levels of PM2.5—responsible for the most respiratory diseases— recording the largest decline.

In April, the AQI of Delhi, the nation’s capital, consistently stayed below 20. Among the most polluted cities in the world, its AQI during winter months can rise to over 900. By comparison, the WHO considers a safe AQI level as below 25.

Change in direction

The key question now, as India emerges from lockdown and starts trying to get its economy back on an even keel, is what happens next. Will India’s energy demand forecasts return largely to previous projected trajectories, consigning the cleaner lockdown air to a brief memory? Or will the bluer skies usher in a permanent change in attitude and a greener and less-energy intensive future?

India’s fossil fuel consumption fell by nearly 46pc in April as big drops in demand were seen across all petroleum products—with the exception of LPG, which is used mainly for domestic cooking. Gasoline sales were down by over 60pc, while diesel—India’s most-consumed fuel—dropped by more than 55pc.

Production of electricity, predominantly supplied by heavily polluting coal-fired plants also, fell sharply—by almost 25pc in April, according to consultancy Crisil Research.

Regarding road transport emissions, it seems likely the pre-coronavirus status quo will be re-established, given the absence of economically viable alternatives in the short term. Preliminary data suggest India’s fuel demand recovered quickly in May.

The case for greening India’s generation mix through increasing renewable power capacity will, though, be strengthened, potentially accelerating a decline in the country’s coal demand. India has already made rapid strides in boosting its solar and wind capacity over recent years. Renewable energy, including large hydro, now accounts for almost 36pc of installed capacity in the country.

36pc – Renewables in India's power sector

And the outlook remains positive. The cost of producing renewable energy in India is already at parity with thermal plants. In May, Indian company Renew Power, backed by US bank Goldman Sachs, won an auction for 400MW of solar power, including storage, at a rate well below competing thermal sources.

Nor is it just expectations of a cleaner power sector that may be permanently reset. State and federal governments will also likely be under pressure to back best practices in sectors such as construction and agriculture to minimise problems such as dust pollution and stubble-burning that have briefly ameliorated during lockdown.

It is not a stretch to imagine that other short-to-medium-term measures that improve air quality without imposing too great an economic burden, such as greater energy efficiency in intensive industries, will gain momentum.

India’s pollution levels will rebound again, unfortunately. But the lobby pursuing structural changes to improve them—and likely moderate some of the most bullish forecasts of Indian energy demand growth—should also emerge from lockdown emboldened and with a folk memory to aid its agenda.

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