Energy Transformation and Air Quality in India

Radhika Khosla presents on India’s growing emissions and electricity consumption as the nation grapples with a public health crisis.

Early this week, residents of Delhi awoke to a public health crisis. The already polluted air in and around the capital city of India had reached extreme levels. PM 2.5, a classification of extremely fine particulate air pollutants that cause lasting damage to both the heart and lungs, reached “severe” levels of 450 micrograms per cubic meter. That may not sound like much, but in the United States, the federal air quality standard for PM 2.5 is 12 micrograms/m^3, and India’s Central Pollution Control Board considers anything above 100 micrograms/m^3 to be “unhealthy.” Arvind Kumar, a doctor at Sir Ganga Ram hospital in Delhi said that living in Delhi at the moment is equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day.

Since Tuesday, the smog has continued to steadily worsen, following a recent annual trend of smothering winter-time pollution. The current crisis has prompted the Delhi government to declare a state of emergency, close all schools in the region, ban nonessential commercial trucks, temporarily cease all construction, and institute a scheme whereby only odd or even license plates will be allowed on the road at a time. Much of the city is in a week long standstill, in the hopes that this bout of toxic air will pass.    

Although the seasonal variation in India’s urban pollution is partly meteorological in nature, the underlying cause is the country’s rapid and accelerating economic development, and the resulting increase in combustion emissions. Between 1995 and 2005, India’s GDP more than doubled. Between 2005 and 2010, it doubled again. The Gross National Income per capita has skyrocketed from $440 in 2000 to $1,700 today. With this newly acquired, albeit modest, prosperity comes increased energy use and rapidly accumulating carbon and pollutant emissions.

India has set ambitious goals for itself when it comes to renewable electricity generation. By 2020, its aims to more than double its existing 70 GW of solar and wind capacity. However, challenges with forecasting, grid reliability, transmission, and surging demand suggest that the country is going to have to rely on a number of additional strategies in order to meet its climate goals, and to reverse its growing air pollution crisis.

Next week, on Wednesday, November 15, Radika Kohsla, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research in India will join us at the Kleinman Center for a policy luncheon exploring India’s forthcoming energy transition. Specifically, her lecture will focus on the growing role that residential energy is expected to play in the nation’s climate and air pollution mitigation efforts.

During Wednesday’s lunch event, Radika Kohsla will present new empirical evidence demonstrating the importance of addressing patterns of growing residential energy demand in the effort to establish sustainable development practices. Her research explores the impacts that behavior change, efficient lighting, and appliances can have on demand-side mitigation at the residential level. Kohsla argues that understanding how people’s personal relationship with energy is changing, as a result of economic development and rising income levels, will play a critical role in ensuring a sustainable path forward for the Republic of India. 

India is home to 1.2 billion people, representing roughly 17% of the global population. The subcontinent’s success, or failure, in meeting its emissions goals during a period of unprecedented economic growth will have a profound impact of the global effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, and to move towards an efficient and low-carbon future.

If global energy trends and the balance of emissions and economic development are of interest to you, we encourage you to attend next week’s lecture by Radika Kohsla. 

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.