Mumbai: Curbing air pollution, strengthening adaptation measures such as state and city action plans, and prioritising health by building resilient health infrastructure to mitigate the impact of climate change should be the areas of prime concern in 2022, according to experts.

Governments must ensure that the ban on single-use plastics is implemented in 2022 and cities must operationalise plans to limit air pollution, one of the leading causes for premature deaths and disabilities, experts added.

Here is a list of priority areas India must focus on in environmental policies and action:

New standards, action plans for air pollution

Air pollution ranks the second highest (after malnutrition) among the risk factors of diseases in India, accounting for 10% of the disease burden. Air pollution is also estimated to reduce the average life expectancy of a child born in India by at least 1.5 years; in 2019, it killed 116,000 Indian infants, we reported in October 2020.

Pollution from vehicles and emissions from factories and coal-fired power stations contribute to air pollution across India, all-year round.

In 2009, the CPCB notified the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) which mention eight prime pollutants: particulate matter (PM 2.5 and PM 10), nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, benzene and ammonia. India is likely to establish fresh standards which would factor in more particulate matter finer than PM 2.5.

The revisions to NAAQS will serve to define the discussion around air pollution for the next decade in India, as per a December 2021 report by the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank. Making the standards more ambitious will be based on our understanding of risk associated with exposure and how that has evolved over time, states the report.

So far, there are 95 cities across 23 states and Union territories which are categorised as non-attainment cities, which do not comply with the NAAQS standards. City-specific action plans are to be formulated for the non-attainment cities through which the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) is operationalised. The NCAP, launched by the environment ministry in January 2019, set a national-level target of 20% to 30% reduction of PM 2.5 and PM 10 concentration levels by 2024, with 2017 as base for concentration levels.

"The NCAP did not really take off because of the pandemic and shutdown," Sunil Dahiya, analyst at the non-profit Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), told IndiaSpend. "As we retreat from the pandemic, it is important to strengthen the NCAP and prioritise emissions reduction from coal-power plants."

Emissions from coal power plants are one of the major causes of air pollution; expanding coal power will lead to 60% more premature deaths in metro cities in India, according to a report by C40 cities, a global network of people from 97 cities. Fifty-five per cent of India's coal-generated electricity is within 500 km of five megacities--Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata--which will put urban residents' health at risk, especially the young, elderly and pregnant women, stated the report.

"There will be continuing pressure to phase down coal, although India hasn't set any clear plans to control coal's impact on deteriorating air quality," said Shripad Dharmadhikary, analyst at the research organisation Manthan Adhyayan Kendra.

"The health aspect of air pollution is something which needs to be integrated in environment policies," said Shweta Narayan, an environmental justice activist and campaigner for climate and health with Health Care Without Harm in India. "The environment impact assessment for thermal power plants fails to look at public health and there is a growing momentum building around the need to undertake health impact assessment for polluting plants."

Prioritising resilient health infrastructure

Climate change and the resultant rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns are creating ideal conditions for transmission of infectious diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, zika, malaria; it may also lead to more deaths, crop failures, mental health problems, pregnancy-related complications and heat- and humidity-related morbidity, we had reported earlier in October 2021.

"In terms of building the resilience of the health system, we are not there," said Narayan, adding, "There is periodic intervention during floods or cyclones, but building an infrastructure that can stand regular events of extreme weather is desperately needed."

In 2015, India came up with the National Health Mission which includes the National Action Plan for Climate Change and Human Health with the aim to strengthen health preparedness and response at the central, state and district levels by building early warning systems and health surveillance to prevent and mitigate extreme heat.

States are putting together their action plans for climate change and human health that are due in December 2021. It will be important to see the budgetary allocations to the state to implement these plans and how they are prioritised in 2022," said Narayan.

Making the plastic ban effective

The country produces over 25,940 tons of plastic waste every day, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). In August 2021, the environment ministry introduced Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules to ban single-use plastic that will be implemented in 2022.

The rules mandate that the manufacture, sale and use of some single-use goods made with plastic, polystyrene, and expanded polystyrene such as earbuds, plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, wrapping and packing films are prohibited from July 1 2022, while others such as carry bags must be at least 75 microns thick from September 30, 2021, and 120 microns from December 31, 2022, compared to 50 microns at present.

In 2019-20, India generated about 3,4 million tonnes of annual plastic waste. While this will be a first countrywide phase out, states in India have already adopted plastic-ban resolutions. For instance, in 1998, the Sikkim government passed the country's first plastic-bag ban. In the last decade, 22 states and Union territories have imposed complete or partial bans on plastic carry bags.

Earlier in 2011, the Union ministry had notified the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling Rules) 2011 that proposed a ban on the use of plastic materials in sachets to store, pack or sell gutkha, tobacco and pan masala. However, the CPCB's annual report 2012-13 noted that the rules are not being "intensely implemented" by states and union territories and plastic bags are being used indiscriminately.

In a National Green Tribunal case (O.A. 85/2020), the petitioner moved the tribunal against Tamil Nadu's Pollution Control Board stating that the manufacture of plastic woven and non-woven carry bags was continuing and perpetuating a wrong impression in the minds of the public that these plastic carry bags were the only alternatives to thin film plastic carry bags. The bench in a November 2021 sitting reportedly said that merely issuing notice bans is not sufficient if the government fails to monitor and take effective steps to penalise offenders who flout the plastic-ban norms.

Implementing state and city climate plans

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its periodic reports, has shown how climate change is impacting the world. For instance, monsoons in India have become uncertain; especially in the important kharif-sowing months of July and August, and this has impacted the paddy harvest in several states of India, IndiaSpend had reported in October 2021. Cyclones like Tauktae and Gulab, which bookended the summer monsoon in 2021, have increased and are set to increase further, IndiaSpend had reported in May 2021.

There is a consensus to limit warming to 1.5°C by 2099 to avoid the worst predictions, but at the same time the need to adapt to climate change has become more significant and urgent. Climate change adaptation includes building critical infrastructure to deal with extreme climate events such as cyclonic storms, droughts and floods.

India has a dedicated National Adaptation Fund on Climate Change (NAFCC), launched in 2015. It is a federal grant that was introduced to fulfil the objectives of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and support state governments in operationalising the State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC) and implementing adaptation projects. The national and state action plans are a framework of action for responding to the effects of climate change and came into force in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Thirty-two states in India have since initiated the process of drafting SAPCC. While there has been a sizable effort at mapping regional climate vulnerability and policy-making on such a grand scale, there has been little implementation of these plans, experts say. Mumbai is the only city in India to have a climate action plan. Delhi is planning to submit its state action plan next month that will focus on actionable items to be implemented in the next 10 years, according to a news report.

A conceptual monitoring and evaluation framework has been proposed by the states in their respective SAPCCs, but, in practice, monitoring and evaluation of activities mentioned under SAPCCs have been almost non-existent, according to a 2018 report by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on the efficacy of state climate action plans.

"The scope of state action plans is largely restricted to state jurisdiction and there needs to be clear vision on further decentralisation at district and city levels," said Vineet Kumar, deputy programme manager at CSE.

It is very important to prioritise comprehensive assessment of the state action plans and how effective they are against extreme weather events, he added.

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