The latest annual report from Greenpeace India and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has some good news for India. The report says that India’s Sulphur dioxide emissions have reduced by 6% in 2019 compared to 2018. This is the steepest dip in four years. While this is a reason to cheer, India remains the global top emitter of Sulphur Dioxide for the fifth consecutive year.
21% of global anthropogenic (human-made) SO2 emissions were emitted by India in 2019. It would be shocking to know that this is nearly double that of the second-ranked global emitter, Russia. China occupies the third position.
Sulphur dioxide is a poisonous air pollutant that increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and premature death. The gas adversely affects the respiratory system, particularly lug function. Sulphur dioxide irritates the respiratory tract and increases the risk of tract infections. It causes coughing, mucus secretion and aggravates conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis.
As per the latest report, the biggest emission hotspots are thermal power stations. Singrauli, Neyveli, Sipat, Mundra, Korba, Bonda, Tamnar, Talcher, Jharsuguda, Kutch, Surat, Chennai, Ramagundam, Chandrapur, Visakhapatnam and Koradi are among the global hotspots.
Among the top emitters, Tamil Nadu’s Chennai and Neyveli, Telangana’s Ramagundam, Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam are the places from south India to be named in the list. Infact, Neyveli is the second most emitter in the country after Singrauli.
While the dip in emissions is great news, experts opine that our air is still far from safe. “We are seeing a reduction in SO2 emissions in the top three emitter countries. In India, we’re getting a glimpse of how reduction in coal usage can impact air quality and health. In 2019, renewable energy capacity expanded, coal dependency decreased and we saw a corresponding improvement in air quality. But our air is still far from safe. We must speed up the energy transition away from coal and towards renewables, for our health and economy. While ensuring just transition of energy, with the help of decentralized renewable sources, we need to prioritize access to electricity for the poor,” says Avinash Chanchal, Climate Campaigner, Greenpeace India.
What is interesting to note is that India has been receiving a lot of appreciation for its ambitious strides in renewable energy but however, it continues to consistently support coal-based energy generation.
India has been faring reasonably well in its clean energy transition and has set itself one of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy targets. Renewable energy capacity has been increasing in India’s power sector, delivering more than two-thirds of the subcontinent's new capacity additions during 2019-20.
However, these efforts are overshadowed by the fact that most of the power plants in India lack flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) units. The FGD units are critical in the process of reducing emissions. In 2015, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) introduced SO2 emission limits for coal power stations. But power plants missed the initial deadline of December 2017 for the installation of FGD units. Though the deadline was extended till 2022, it is important to note that as of June 2020 most of the power plants are operating without compliance to standards.
Analysts say that every single day’s delay in implementation of prescribed norms is causing huge health and economic damage to our society. “SO2 emissions are affecting the health of millions of people directly and worse through converting to PM2.5. The most efficient and easiest way to reduce PM2.5 levels is to install FGD and reduce SO2 emissions from power plants as they form a significant fraction of total PM2.5 pollution at different locations across the country", says Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).
"It’s time the offenders/non-complying power plants are pulled up for inaction and damage to society to ensure better implementation moving ahead", he added.
Five years after setting the SO2 emission limits, the Indian government has decided to shut down non-compliant thermal power stations and has also allocated Rs 4,400Cr to tackle the air pollution crisis.
According to Greenpeace India, it’s high time that governments reduce investments in fossil fuels and shift to safer energy sources, such as wind and solar. Simultaneously, they must also strengthen emission standards and effectively implement flue gas pollution control technology on coal-fired power plants, smelters, and other major industrial SO2.