India's air pollution emergency

India's air pollution emergency

UNIDO is supporting start-ups using clean-tech innovations

04 Oct 2019

The cost of air pollution is enormous. A study published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that air pollution killed 1.24m Indians in 2017. The biggest cause of this calamity are fine particles - atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. They are so small that they are involuntarily inhaled deep into the lungs, leading to heart and lung disease. These fine particles are constantly produced by vehicle engine exhaust, factories, building sites, the burning of waste and by thermal power plants – more than half of India’s electricity is still generated by burning coal.

The 10 most polluted cities in the world are all in northern India, where air pollution is difficult to disperse due to the Himalayas forming a barrier to the north, preventing poor air from dissipating. On the top of the list is the city of Kanpur, the industrial hub of the state of Uttar Pradesh. In Kanpur, the coal burned by industry, emissions from vehicles, and the use of chemicals in hundreds of leather tanneries, is producing a toxic cocktail of airborne pollution.

The national government is moving to address the emergency. In January 2019, it launched the National Clean Air Programme, a five-year action plan to curb air pollution by building an air-quality monitoring network and improving citizen awareness. The government has also provided cooking gas cylinders to more than 50 million poor households to try to reduce the use of biomass cooking fuels. Increased investment has made renewables India’s second-largest generator of electricity.

But to help curb air pollution in India and elsewhere in the world, new technologies and innovative approaches are needed. In How technology can help India breathe more easily, Ericsson’s Nitin Bansal writes that ICT (information and communications technologies) solutions, such as the Internet of Things, could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 15% by 2030. In Delhi, for instance, Ericsson, in partnership with IIT Kanpur, has deployed NarrowBand-IoT sensor networks at strategic locations that help monitor air pollution levels. The real-time data collected by theses sensors is then collated for analysis with the aim of increasing awareness, supporting policy intervention, and allowing corrective actions to reduce air pollution in the city.

In recent years, Indian start-ups have served as a strong catalyst for the digitalization of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) across the country, enhancing the prospects for increased productivity, strong connectivity and digital deliverability solutions. The dynamic start-up community is fueling a strong innovation system.

Some of these start-ups are using clean-tech innovations to combat the scourge of air pollution. The commercialization of a number of them has been fast-tracked through a joint programme of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and India’s Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, funded by the Global Environment Facility.

Delhi-based Chakr Innovation curbs air pollution with the world’s first retro-fit emission control device for diesel generators. The device captures around 90% of particulate matter emissions from the exhaust smoke from the generators without compromising on energy efficiency. What is more, the diesel soot captured from the exhaust is afterwards converted into ink and paint.

Cellzyme Biotech, from Coimbatore in the state of Tamil Nadu, is another enterprise dedicated to combating air pollution. It uses an engineered enzyme to make antibiotics at room temperature, without using solvents - which are a major contributor to air pollution. The novel production process also reduces the environmental footprint by conserving energy.

Inspired by the traditional Indian method of cooking with charcoal, Agnisumukh manufactures commercial kitchen equipment driven by innovative, energy-efficient, gas burners. These cooking stoves save 30% of costs on gas and help beat indoor air pollution in commercial kitchens.

To find out more about the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme India, jointly implemented by UNIDO and the Government of India’s Ministry of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises, see A Compendium of Clean Technology Innovations in India