CSE Press Note: Clean air before the Games: Are we living up to it?

  • CSE releases the results of its latest assessment of pre-Commonwealth air quality and air pollution control measures 

  • Finds the capital has achieved a lot, but still has a long way to go

  • Delhi needs a combination of long lasting reforms as well as a contingent plan to clean up its air before the 2010 Commonwealth Games


New Delhi, May 10, 2010: Delhi faces serious pressures to clean up its air before the high profile Commonwealth Games in October - exactly the way Beijing did for the 2008 Olympics. Air pollution levels are daunting. Cutting these levels during the Games will need scale, stringency and frenetic pace of action to ensure that the public health benefits last beyond the event, says the analysis by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). 


According to Anumita Roychowdhury, head of CSE’s air pollution unit, “Clearing the haze takes on a specific significance in the context of the Games as athletes have to perform to potential, especially in extreme endurance events and they need clean air. With every breath, athletes typically take in 10 to 20 times as much air, and thus pollutants, as sedentary people.” 


But environmental sustainability will have to be integrated with the planning for the Games for city-wide public health benefits. Air pollution is taking a heavy toll in the city. Studies carried out by the National Chittaranjan Cancer Research Institute have shown that 33 per cent of Delhi residents have one or more respiratory symptoms; lung function has reduced in 40 per cent of Delhiites. Studies from the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences of the IIT have found an increase in respiratory ailments and hospital admissions due to PM, ozone and NO2 pollution. More such evidences are piling up. 


Delhi, like Beijing, has come under increasing pressure not only to lower the pollution spikes but also to meet the air quality standards. In fact, studies carried out by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Peking University have found that the air quality improvement due to Beijing Olympics have led to health benefits in terms of respiratory ailments. 


Delhi has already begun to take action in nearly all sectors to control air pollution over the past decade. It has relocated polluting industries; moved from Euro I to Euro IV emissions standards for vehicles; all buses, three-wheelers and a great part of taxis run on CNG; 15-year old commercial vehicles are off the road; transit freight traffic is restricted; controls on power plants are tighter; open burning of leaves is banned and so on. With this Delhi could only stabilize the pollution levels. But meeting clean air standards presents a very difficult challenge, as Beijing’s experience shows. 


Challenges before the Games

What are the air quality challenges that the city will have to address before the games? CSE has analysed the air quality data monitored by Central Pollution Control Board and found:


  • Levels of tiny particles are very high and climbing – in fact, they have hit the pre-CNG days. The PM10 levels will have to be reduced by at least four times to be able to meet the standard. While a moratorium on construction activities during the Games can help, the action on combustion sources will have to be stringent as well. 
  • Nitrogen oxide levels are rising in Delhi. This is strongly related to vehicular activity and needs stringent control. High NOx can trigger ozone build-up. 
  • The number of days with ozone levels exceeding the standards is high in both summer and winter months. Ozone is particularly harmful for athletes and outdoor activities, with immediate health impact even for short duration exposure.
  • Pollution trends at the onset of the Games in October will need to be watched carefully. Studies in Delhi have shown that the pollution concentrations can invariably be 40-80 per cent higher during the winter months. PM2.5 and NO2 begin to increase from October onwards. In October 2009, of the 23 days monitored at ITO, PM2.5 exceeded the 24-hourly standard on 61 per cent of the days, while ozone levels exceeded the standard (8-hourly average) on 29 per cent of the days at Siri Fort monitoring station. Short term exceedances of 1-hourly ozone standard have also been high.
  • What if Delhi – like Beijing -- is asked to increase the number of clean air days (days on which air quality standards are met)? CSE has found that since 2006, on an average, PM2.5 and NO2 could meet the standards only on 30 per cent of the days. 2009 fared better when PM2.5 standards could be met on 40% of the days monitored. But in 2010, until April, the PM2.5 levels have exceeded the standards on 92 per cent of the days monitored. Ozone levels are also high in these summer months. 
  • The green Games will demand nearly day to day and hour to hour pollution management. Pollution trends co-relate strongly with the peak hour traffic. Ozone, PM2.5 and carbon monoxide levels show high levels during morning and evening peak hours. 
  • For the first time, air quality regulators will be forecasting air pollution levels during the Games, This should be used to initiate a contingent plan.


Spotlight on vehicles

Clearly, after relocating polluting industry and stalling further expansion of power generation inside Delhi, rapidly rising numbers of personal vehicles hinders clean air action in Delhi now. Vehicles are one of the key pushers of pollution in Delhi. All studies point towards high share of vehicles’ contribution to pollution load -- 76-90 per cent of carbon monoxide, 66-74 per cent of nitrogen dioxide, up to 22 per cent of particulate matter – more than half to 60 per cent if finer particles are considered. This demands stringent action on vehicles. 


In fact the ecological code for the Games mentions categorically - “Reduce, measure and monitor air and noise pollution levels”. It seeks to strive towards achieving national standards for air pollutants, and encourage use of clean fuel-driven public transportation. Already, the report of the Commonwealth Games Evaluation Commission has stated that “mobility within Delhi is difficult and congested” and therefore, a “risk area”. The transport sector while emits most of the pollutants is also blamed for causing congestion on roads.


Whither action?

Delhi has already unleashed reforms and has a two-pronged plan: long-term structural reforms and short-term Games venue oriented measures. Will this help to address the pollution and mobility crisis?


To ease off traffic congestion in the city prior to the Games, the Delhi government has set off massive road infrastructure improvement that include projects on construction of flyovers, bridges, road widening, junction improvements, corridor improvement and street-scaping, new street lights, new signages, and construction of new parking sites. 


But there are serious doubts whether this alone can succeed in providing any noticeable environmental benefits or relieve congestion. More road space brings more vehicles and more pollution. Even after having after 21 per cent of its land area under road network – one of the highest in the country -- Delhi is still gridlocked. Road availability is declining steadily as vehicle numbers are exploding; average peak hour traffic speed has plummeted. Vehicles caught in congestion emit more and guzzle more fuels. This is an endless spiral.


Re-engineer mobility

Delhi has a chance to plan its mobility differently. It has already embarked on upscaling of public transport systems with metro, bus augmentation plans, multi-modal integration, and expanding walk and bicycle paths. But this will have to be leveraged to reduce dependence on personal vehicles.


The share of public transport ridership has already slipped from 60 per cent in 2001 to 40 per cent in 2008. Beijing had also aimed to increase public transport usage substantially through an elaborate network of metro, light rail and bus rapid transit system and pressed into action more than 20,000 buses. It slashed fares drastically to improve ridership. 


Delhi needs an effective public transport strategy to ensure that the benefits of the green Games last beyond the games. 


Need: A rolling contingency plan to meet clean air targets

CSE highlights the lessons from Beijing in its analysis -- that even after seven years of consistent and aggressive efforts, Beijing still found it difficult to ensure clean air during the Games and had to be ready with a contingent plan. Beijing actually removed three million cars from the roads during the Games. 


Delhi must also be ready with an emergency plan for the Games and test it out before the event. The new monitoring and forecasting systems that are being put in place for the Games will have to guide this action. Planning for Games venues cannot be seen in isolation from the rest of the city. 


Get ready

Soft options are all exhausted in Delhi. Reducing personal vehicle usage, upgrading public transport, walking and cycling, and leapfrogging vehicle technology are the key options left for us. Scale and stringency of action and enforcement are needed for effective impact and to meet clean air targets. 


  • Complete key public transport projects including metro before the games. Augment bus fleet substantially; rationalize bus routes for maximum connectivity and ensure their seamless and rapid movement. 
  • Augment walking and cycling facilities for green commuting and public transport integration. Pedestrianise key and busy commercial areas that are well connected. 
  • Traffic reduction measures on key arterial roads with the help of traffic restraint measures, voluntary measures (For example, car pooling, staggered office timing, park and ride, parking controls etc.)
  • Set up smog alert system based on daily air quality monitoring and forecasting. Implement pollution emergency measures as needed. Designate and authorize agencies to carry out such plans. 
  • Clamp down and physically remove visibly smoking vehicles. Improve and enforce emissions checks on in-use vehicles. 
  • Coordinate with the neighbouring state governments in the national capital region to regulate and reduce the daily influx of traffic from outside. Provide alternative by augmenting both bus based and rail based intercity connectivity and ridership. 
  • Prepare contingency plan targeting key pollution sources in different sectors. 
  • Complete all construction activities before the Games to control dust. 


Says Roychowdhury, “Only the compulsion to meet clean air targets can deepen public understanding of what it takes to protect public health. Only this can build public support for aggressive action needed for a green Games as well as long terms sustainability of the city.”


For more details, you can contact Priyanka Chandola on 9810414938 or priyanka@cseindia.org