2 NOVEMBER 2018
Choked by smog
Urgent correctives are needed, or lethal winter pollution will become the new normal
Air pollution is choking several cities in the northern States once again, as changes in temperature and slowing winds trap soot, dust and fine particulate matter. The National Capital Region is badly hit, as the burning of agricultural residue in Punjab and Haryana is releasing large volumes of smoke containing, among other pollutants, highly damaging fine particulates, or PM2.5. The problem is aggravated by the burning of urban waste, diesel soot, vehicular exhaust, road and construction dust, and power generation. Although India has nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, it has not taken consistent action on pollution. Tens of millions live with ambient air quality that is well short of even the relaxed parameters the country has set for fine particulates, compared with those of the World Health Organisation. India should at least now give high importance to the WHO warning about air pollution being the new tobacco. This year’s ‘severe’ air quality rating for Delhi and poor conditions prevailing in other cities in the Indo-Gangetic Plain should compel a decisive shift in policy. The Centre and the State governments need to get into crisis mode to dramatically reduce emissions. They must address the burning of carbon, which is a direct source, and emissions with oxides of nitrogen and sulphur from vehicles that turn into fine particulates through atmospheric reactions. Failure to take sustainable and urgent measures will inflict long-term harm on public health, affecting children even more by putting them at higher risk for diseases.
The UN Environment Programme’s recent report titled ‘Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-Based Solutions’ has sounded a warning, pointing out that only 8% of the population in the countries of the region get to breathe air of acceptable quality. One study of degradation of Delhi’s air over a 10-year period beginning 2000 estimated premature mortality to have risen by as much as 60%. With the steady growth in the population of the capital and other cities, the trauma is set to worsen. Farm stubble burning is a major contributor to the problem, and its footprint may be growing because of wider use of mechanical harvesters that is producing more waste. An innovative approach could be to use climate change funds to turn farm residues into a resource, using technological options such as converting them into biofuels and fertilizers. From an urban development perspective, large cities should reorient their investments to prioritise public transport, favouring electric mobility. The World Bank has said it is keen to enhance its lending portfolio to tackle air pollution, opening a new avenue for this. Governments should make the use of personal vehicles in cities less attractive through strict road pricing mechanisms. Sharply escalated, deterrent parking fees can be implemented. If governments delay action on the critical issue of pollution control, public pressure must force them to act.
Angela Merkel’s decision to quit her party’s leadership opens up German politics
As the Angela Merkel era draws to a close, Germany’s post-War political model of two-party rule is under strain. Chancellor Merkel’s decision to stand down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, after leading it for 18 years, was triggered by its poor showing in recent regional elections. But Ms. Merkel’s announcement to quit politics after the end of her current term merely mirrors her waning influence among the conservatives and in the governing coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Recently, her preferred choice to lead the party in Parliament was voted down. Earlier, the row between her and the Interior Minister over the treatment of refugees nearly marked the end of the CDU’s alliance with the Christian Social Union. Following their worst combined showing in the 2017 general elections, the CDU and the SPD took months to forge their grand coalition. CDU hardliners blamed the drubbing on Ms. Merkel’s policies seeking to steer the party to the political centre. Conversely, the SPD saw its cohabitation with the conservatives exacting a heavy price. The alliance thus remains uneasy.
But the one singular factor that dramatically turned the tide against Ms. Merkel, both at home and across the EU, was her approach to migration. The 2015 humanitarian intervention to welcome into Germany a million, mostly Syrian refugees was seized upon by the eurosceptic and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Its populist rhetoric was directed until then against Berlin’s backing for the eurozone bailout programme. The target now shifted to playing up the economic burden on account of the arrival of masses of Muslim refugees. The move also bolstered support for CDU leaders, who saw a direct link between what was to them too lenient an approach to migration and the inroads of the AfD. The conservative leadership battle will determine whether the CDU will be able to reverse its course back to its traditional base on the political right. Veterans eager for a return to the party’s roots hope that such a reconfiguration would force the AfD to the fringe. Another likely scenario is the emergence of the Greens as a formidable mainstream alternative, possibly cutting into the SPD base. Paradoxically, even as Germany’s two-party system turns shaky, its famed model of political consensus-building could only have greater relevance under a future multi-party polity. The implications for the EU from the unfolding transition in Germany are immense, given Berlin’s leadership role over the decades, alongside Paris, in shaping the course of European integration. The 2019 election to the European parliament could be a pointer to the way ahead.