[Urbanstudy] It’s time to focus on the toxic air we breathe
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Fri Aug 11 12:53:50 CDT 2017
It’s time to focus on the toxic air we breathe
AUGUST 11, 2017 00:15 IST
UPDATED: AUGUST 10, 2017 23:32 IST
NITI Aayog’s draft energy policy ignores the health impacts of energy
On June 27, 2017, the Niti Aayog released the draft National Energy Policy
It invited comments from the public to help strengthen its perspectives on
some of the complex issues surrounding energy security. Several public
policy research and civil society organisations partook in the process and
critiqued the policy from various standpoints.
Public health and growth
An important aspect that the draft policy ignores is public health,
especially in the context of the energy mix envisaged under the NITI
Ambition Scenario. The Ambition Scenario is a tool to arrive at a range of
possible energy futures for the energy sector till 2040. The range presents
the scenarios which India may follow if it were to follow a
business-as-usual path versus if it were to transition to an ambitious
pathway which is cleaner and more sustainable.
In the document, there are 14 references to health, of which only five
relate to public health in the context of household cooking fuel. The rest
are analogies to describe the health of the coal sector and discoms. The
World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that air pollution is the number
one environmental health risk. In 2012, about three million premature
deaths were attributable to ambient air pollution. The cumulative toll in
terms of illness and impairment is likely to be greater.
According to environmental health researchers, children represent the
subgroup of the population most affected by air pollution and will be the
primary beneficiaries of policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
Moreover, research has also established links between public health and a
nation’s economic growth. The estimated cost of ambient air pollution in
terms of the value of lives lost and ill health in OECD (Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, India and China is more
than $3.5 trillion annually. Similarly, a joint study by the World Bank and
the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that the aggregate
cost of premature deaths due to air pollution was more than $5 trillion
worldwide in 2013 alone. In East and South Asia, welfare losses related to
air pollution were the equivalent of about 7.5% of GDP.
Given that every sector’s decisions, including the energy sector, can have
repercussions on determinants of health, the WHO’s Health in All Policies
(HiAP) framework was established wherein health considerations are made in
policymaking across different sectors, such as power, transport,
agriculture and housing, that could influence health. In keeping with HiAP,
the Health and Family Welfare Ministry (MHFW) established a steering
committee with the aim to garner multi-sectoral commitment to address the
issue of air pollution in India. Furthermore, the National Health Policy of
2017 views reducing air pollution as vital to India’s health trajectory.
However, the National Energy Policy neither reflects nor supports the
commitment outlined by the MHFW.
Vision documents like the National Energy Policy have to strive to minimise
the unavoidable health impacts of energy production, and their associated
health costs, especially given the policy’s stated objectives of
sustainability and economic growth. The policy should include a health
impact assessment framework to weigh the health hazards and health costs
associated with the entire life cycle of existing and future energy
projects and technologies. For instance, there is no method under the
current policy regime, as proposed by the NITI Aayog, to evaluate the
health impacts of coal’s contribution to mercury and fine particulate
pollution, or the risk of radiation with envisaged increase in nuclear
power, or the occupational exposures to silica and cadmium during
photovoltaic panel manufacturing.
The WHO’s initial findings from an expert consultation on Health Indicators
of Sustainable Energy provide a good outline to kick-start a similar
exercise in India. It lays out a few core and expanded indicators that can
help monitor the progress of a nation’s energy policy. The core indicators
address issues related to health equity where health impact assessments
become an integral part of energy policy design and implementation. The
expanded indicators stress on the need to develop baseline data by
generating emission inventories and source apportionment of urban air
pollution that can inform mitigation and intervention policies. A nation’s
energy policy can have a huge bearing on society and health. It is thus
important to ensure that policies directed at energy security are
compatible with public health goals.
*Dharmesh Shah is a Chennai- based environmental policy researcher*
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