Wealthier urban households contribute much more to air pollution and GHG emissions

A modest 10% reduction in energy consumption from wealthier urban households, which can be achieved from energy conservation and the adoption of efficient power sources, can reduce particulate pollution by 7.1 %, 8.4 %, and 6.2 % in Delhi, Coimbatore, and Rajkot respectively.

Yash KhandelwalYash Khandelwal   12 Sep 2022 8:05 AM GMT

Wealthier urban households contribute much more to air pollution and GHG emissions

Yash Khandelwal and Mani Bhushan Jha

People across the world suffer from air pollution. One of the prominent health and environmental concerns globally, it is responsible for more than seven million premature deaths annually.

Urban centres in developing countries like India are the most exposed to ultra-fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a pollutant responsible for over 95 per cent of air pollution-related fatalities.

In addition to PM2.5, key infrastructural provisioning systems – energy, water, transportation, building materials (shelter), food, waste management, and green infrastructure – in these urban centres also contribute substantially to carbon emissions, which cause climate change.

Though there have been many discussions around the causes, impacts, and risks of air pollution, there is minimal literature from India analysing the available data based on the socio-economic status of people.

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Air pollution and the associated carbon footprints contribute substantially to the health and climate crisis. Photo: Canva

Recent research published in the IOPScience Journal Environmental Research Letters conducted by authors from Princeton and Minnesota University has assessed the inboundary PM2.5 and transboundary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions based on socio-economic status and multi-sectoral consumption in the cities of Delhi, Coimbatore, and Rajkot.

The study establishes a relationship between income inequality of households and their share of local pollution, suggesting that wealthier groups contribute much higher than the poorer communities. While the transition of the top 20 per cent of households to a cleaner and more sustainable infrastructure can substantially mitigate air pollution, policies that help low-income sections to avail of basic infrastructural benefits need to develop.

Unequal emissions contribution of different strata

Households of similar economic statuses produce emissions from similar sources in the cities of Coimbatore, Delhi, and Rajkot. The top 20 per cent of households contribute disproportionately more to the total pollution than other income groups due to greater consumption of fossil fuels and power and more construction activities.

In contrast, with scarce livelihood opportunities and limited access to clean energy sources, the bottom 20 per cent of households consume cooking fuel like biomass and kerosene to meet their energy requirements, contributing to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

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Consequently, a disparity exists between different income groups of Delhi and Coimbatore where the top 20 per cent of households contribute as much as 42 per cent and 47 per cent of household-generated PM2.5 respectively, while the bottom 20 per cent contribute only 14 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.

The unreasonably high level of pollutants and carbon footprints contributed by the wealthier households exceed not only the share of lower income groups but also industries and the commercial sector.

For instance, the top-tier households contribute 21 per cent of the community-wide PM2.5 emissions, equivalent to the entire industrial contribution in Delhi. Moreover, while the industrial and commercial sectors produce about 19 per cent and 24 per cent of Delhi's total GHG emissions respectively, the top 20 per cent of households dominate here as well with a 25 per cent GHG contribution.

Co-benefits of future infrastructural policies

As the government plans to strengthen its action plan on lessening the impact of air pollution in the major urban centres, it should focus on three policies – transition towards renewable energy and energy efficiency, higher penetration of e-mobility systems, and availability of clean cooking fuel- each of which can yield to substantial GHG and PM2.5 reductions.

In addition to government policies, wealthier households need to take responsibility for the emissions they produce. Behavioural and lifestyle changes in the upper class can improve local air quality to a great extent.

For instance, a modest 10 per cent reduction in energy consumption from these homes, which can be achieved from energy conservation and the adoption of efficient power sources, can reduce particulate pollution by 7.1 per cent, 8.4 per cent, and 6.2 per cent in Delhi, Coimbatore, and Rajkot respectively.

Strategised awareness campaigns should be developed to address the current obstacles such as the intermittent nature of renewable energy, low immediate return of investment, and under-developed infrastructure for energy storage, transmission and charging.

Additionally, to increase the popularity and trust of renewable energy, electric vehicles (EVs), and other clean technologies, incentives can be granted for adoption by consumers.

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The bottom 20 per cent of households consume cooking fuel like biomass and kerosene, contributing to indoor and outdoor air pollution. Photo: Canva

Moreover, as certain disadvantaged groups are still unable to access clean and low-carbon infrastructure, it is imperative to implement equitable policies that not only fulfill the basic requirements of these groups but also alleviate the associated environmental concerns.

For example, intervention to prohibit the use of biomass and kerosene as cooking fuels and their replacement with subsidised or free LPG cylinders in lower to middle-income groups can reduce 11.8 per cent, 58.4 per cent, and 50.3 per cent in-boundary PM2.5, in Delhi, Coimbatore, and Rajkot respectively. The policy can additionally mitigate various health risks in women and children which arise from burning firewood.

Air pollution and the associated carbon footprints contribute substantially to the health and climate crisis, especially in India, which has 22 of the 30 most polluted cities worldwide.

Whereas the well-off households should take accountability for the pollution they cause, fair and implementable policies should be promoted to reduce the socio-environmental disparity that low-income households face. This is more important than ever to ensure a just and equitable transition for all.

Note: The research 'Socially-differentiated urban metabolism methodology informs equity in coupled carbon-air pollution mitigation strategies: Insights from three Indian cities' conducted by Dr Ajay Nagpure and Dr KK Tong, was designed and supervised by Prof Anu Ramaswami of Princeton University.

Yash Khandelwal is Co-Curator of Green Coalition. Mani Bhushan Jha is Program Associate at Climate Program of World Resources Institute, India. Views are personal.

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