Delhi's Pollution Problem
Coal Is Choking India

China and India have been locked in a battle for global leadership, but this isn’t a fight either one is going to want to win. Asia’s two giants both have serious—and that may be understating it—problems with air pollution, but it looks like New Delhi is now taking the crown from Beijing as having the world’s least breathable air. The Washington Post reports:

The 2017 State of Global Air report, released Tuesday by the [Health Effects Institute] and others, finds that since 1990 the absolute number of ozone-related deaths has risen at an alarming rate in India — by about 150 percent — while in China, some European nations and Russia, the number has remained stable. Measured per head of population, India substantially outpaces China, with 14.7 ozone-related deaths for every 100,000 people, compared with China’s 5.9.

In addition, the absolute number of deaths in India attributed to fine particulate matter in the air were approaching China’s toll in 2015 and probably exceed that figure by now, according to Dan Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute. An increase in vehicle traffic, emissions from coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities, and fires fueled by wood and dung contribute to the problem. When calculated per 100,000 of population, the number in both countries has decreased, although India’s remains far above China’s.

So whether you’re looking at India’s air quality concerns from a relative or absolute perspective, the country’s smog is killing more people than China’s. That’s quite an accomplishment when you consider just how many headlines China’s toxic air pollution has made over the past decade.

Like China, India is starting to course correct, responding to this “airpocalypse” by moving to phase out its reliance on coal. According to a new report from The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), a New Delhi-based think tank, India is on track to stop construction on new coal-fired power plants in eight years. The FT reports:

According to Teri’s research, coal-fired power plants under construction will be built, but no more will be needed after 2025, provided two things happen.

First, the cost of both renewables and battery storage need to keep falling at their current trajectories. If they come down to half their current price by 2025, according to Mr Mathur, they will undercut coal, something he said he was confident would happen. Second, the government needs to put in place policies to make it viable to run a system mainly off renewables. For example, ministers will have to allow companies running the electricity grid to buy power in an instant.

By almost any metric, coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel around. Coal-fired plants don’t just contribute twice as many greenhouse gases as their natural gas-fired alternatives, they also pump out a large amount of local air pollutants that can choke the life out of nearby people, as citizens in China’s major cities (and, more and more, in India’s) can well attest to.

The problem, of course, is that coal is just so cheap. It’s a hard sell in the West to tell people to turn off their lights for the sake of cleaner air, but that argument is especially difficult to make in the developing world. The Teri report points to renewables and better battery storage as the path forward for India in its quest to clear its skies, but that will only happen if those technologies advance enough to be able to compete with coal on price.

To that end, countries would be much better served investing in the research and development of the next generation of solar panels, wind turbines, and storage options, rather than subsidizing what we already have. A collection of technologies that are cost effective without feed-in tariffs or other sorts of governmental support are more sustainable than the clean energy systems we see today, and isn’t sustainability what greens are all about?

In the meantime, there’s plenty of natural gas—both piped and liquified—sloshing around global markets. The American shale revolution is helping bring down spot LNG prices in trading hubs around the world, and relatively cheap oil prices are making many natural gas customers happy (as gas prices are often linked to the price of oil in long-term contracts). If renewables can’t yet clean India’s smoggy skies, U.S. frackers can be of assistance.

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