Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Where There’s Smoke…

I live in Los Angeles and travel to Beijing relatively frequently. That said, I am told that I have not remotely experienced the worst air quality on earth. Really? What about that 2013 study that showed that southerner in China can expect to live 5.5 years longer than those in the north where coal-burning power plants are the norm? What, you say, Mumbai, India is worse?! Old habits and a swelling population have made Mumbai virtually unlivable. And New Delhi? Really terrible. Worse even? Yeah, I’ve landed in Delhi too, and the minute you step off the plane, smoke is everywhere.
In India, coal burning is, of course, an issue. Charcoal is a standard cooking fuel. So are lots of older cars and trucks spewing particulates by the pound. But the biggie in India has to be “agricultural fires” that are rather completely out of control but very much a standard part of farming throughout the country. The November 2nd New York Times explains: “Desperate to reduce the pollution that has made New Delhi’s air quality among the worst in the world, the city has banned private cars for two-week periods and campaigned to reduce its ubiquitous fireworks during holiday celebrations.
“But one thing India has not seriously tried could make the most difference: curtailing the fires set to rice fields by hundreds of thousands of farmers in the nearby states of Punjab and Haryana, where much of the nation’s wheat and rice is grown.
“Although India’s environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, told the government last year to stop farmers from burning the straw left over from their rice harvests, NASA satellite images in recent weeks have shown virtually no abatement. Farmers are continuing to burn most of the leftover straw — an estimated 32 million tons — to make room to plant their winter wheat crop.
“While fireworks associated with the Hindu holiday of Diwali were blamed for a particularly bad smog problem in recent days, smoke from the crop fires blowing across the northern plains into New Delhi accounts for about one-quarter of the most dangerous air pollution in the winter months. In the growing metropolis of nearly 20 million people, pollution soared well above hazardous levels in the past week [in late October].” The scope of the problem is massive and very visible from space as the above NASA satellite photograph of such Indian agricultural fires illustrates.
When you think about the options available to subsistence-level farmers, the ability to use expensive tractors and other mechanized alternatives to turning over the refuse of a harvested crop is just out of reach for most. Burning the fields, effectively helping fertilize the land with little effort, is how it has always been done, and farmers just cannot afford any other alternative. Even simple technology – like using a seeder mounted on a tractor to plant wheat without the need to dispose of the straw left after the rice harvest – requires an expensive tractor.
Farmers 100 miles north in Punjab were well aware that they were contaminating the capital’s air, they said in interviews, and were willing to consider other ways to dispose of the excess straw, but could not afford the options offered by the government.” NY Times. Given the massive size of India’s agricultural lands, the government isn’t likely able to afford to subsidize the healthier solution.
But if that makes Delhi’s air worse that some of the most polluted cities in China, the impact on its residents, in terms of health and life expectancy, has to contract local life expectancies even more than the Chinese numbers above. The air is worse than the worst I have ever experienced in Beijing or Los Angeles. “Farmers began burning their fields two weeks ago [in mid-October], and levels of the smallest particles, called PM 2.5 and believed to pose the greatest health risk, were already soaring.
“On [a recent] night, levels of these particles in one Delhi neighborhood reached 688 micrograms per cubic meter, more than 10 times the healthy limit set by the Indian government, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee’s website said. In every neighborhood where air quality data was available, particle levels were at least four times the limit, putting most areas in the hazardous range by Indian standards, which are more lenient than those set by the World Health Organization.
“Asked how they could keep burning their crop remnants knowing they were causing health problems in New Delhi, [Jaswant Singh, 53, who farms a 20 acre parcel] and other farmers said they were deeply concerned, especially because their families also suffered from the ill effects of the smoke. But still, they said, they could not afford to dispose of the material any other way.” NY Times.
With India joining the United States and China in signing the recent Paris climate accord, it is clear that until this archaic agricultural method is banned and the ban truly enforced, there is no way for India remotely to meet target air quality goals, and the sheer size of this problem poses a global threat well outside of India’s own borders. But as cash-strapped as our own Congress believes us to be, the costs that need to be borne by vastly less-wealthy developing nations to stem pollution are staggeringly higher. In the end, given that pollution is hardly a respecter of borders, all of us on earth are going to have figure out how we are going to pay for this live-saving necessity. Really, really soon.
I’m Peter Dekom, and thinking that this kind of pollution is “the other guys’ problem” will slowly decrease our own health and life expectancies accordingly.

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