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Fossil Fuel Use Turns India’s Capital Into a ‘Gas Chamber’

Fumes from burning gasoline and diesel, ‘petroleum coke’, and coal, smothered Indian’s capital and other cities across south Asia, forcing vehicles off streets, aircraft out of the sky, and threatening the health of millions of people.
In Delhi and its National Capital Region alone, some 44 million people breathed air in which concentrations of toxic particulate matter reached 40 times the levels recognized as safe by the World Health Organization.
“I spent Sunday holed up in a small bedroom with my six-year-old and two large air purifiers running full blast,” Delhi resident Amy Kazmin wrote for the Financial Times. “Every so often, I checked my handheld air quality monitor. It was reassuring: our ambient air was ‘moderate’, with levels of fine particulates just a touch above what the World Health Organization deems a ‘safe limit’ of exposure for 24 hours.”
Outside however, “six days after Delhi, and much of north India, was enshrouded in a toxic smog—a worsening phenomenon at the onset of every winter—air quality remained hazardous, with levels of dangerous tiny particulates, known as PM2.5, around 28 to 30 times the recommended safe level.”
Even the city’s chief minister called it a “gas chamber,” according to one of several reports in the Washington Post. Other dispatches told of how “trains were delayed and bus companies reported that people were cancelling tickets out of fear of highway accidents,” and United Airlines had cancelled flights into the city’s airport.
“Delhi’s air quality is consistently ranked among the world’s worst,” the Post observed. But what it called “a perfect storm of problems” is making things particularly bad. “Farmers who have recently harvested crops in neighbouring states are illegally burning their fields, sending smoke into the air. Construction projects and pollution from vehicles in a city that lacks adequate public transportation are making things worse.”
Last week, the Indian capital achieved an unwanted distinction when its smog reached an intensity 10 times higher than Beijing’s.
“Every winter, the weather becomes hostile,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “Around this time of year, the air is cooler and the wind disappears almost entirely from the city. What you see is a combination of local pollution plus episodic pollution, from winds from surrounding regions where farmers burn crop stubble in this season.”
Anticipating the seasonal spike in air pollution, Indian courts last month approved a ban on burning petroleum coke—known as “petcoke,” a sort of industrial-strength charcoal—in Delhi, the National Capital Region, and several surrounding states. Without access to the fuel, however, factories and brick kilns in the region turned toburning coal instead.
Local governments responded with other measures, “including the shutdown of power plants and brick kilns in the wider Delhi region, as well as the banning of private electricity generators,” CNN reported.
Yet Delhi wasn’t the only south Asian city smothering under the exhaust from fossil fuel use, nor even the most polluted city in India, the American news network observed, citing a World Health Organization ranking it only the 14th-most contaminated.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Pakistan, “experts say the air in Lahore rivals the Indian capital’s for toxicity,” the New York Times observed. The problem is not limited to Pakistan’s second-largest city or its 11 million residents, the paper noted, citing data from the WHO. “In 2015, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particles in the air, one of the world’s highest death tolls from air pollution.”
Air pollution, primarily from fossil fuel combustion, has been blamed for killing as many as 4,000 people every day in China, and 3.3 million annually around the world.
Acute levels of urban air pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities have provided a popular rationale for policies to reduce reliance on coal and other fossil fuels there. Something similar may yet offer a solution to the grey smog enveloping Delhi, Lahore, and scores of other cities in south Asia.
India’s government has made strides to reduce the country’s reliance on coal for generating electricity, closing scores of coal mines and cancelling gigawatts of proposed new coal-fired generating stations. But one big private utility has plans to expand its coal fleet, while another is promoting plans to develop one of Australia’s largest coal mines.