Emerging from a pandemic: How can India return to bluer skies?

3 min read

Lockdown gave countries like India a temporary glimpse of bluer skies, but with pollution levels back on the rise, the construction industry is once again reminded of its role in the quest for cleaner air.

As countries across the world locked down to slow the spread of coronavirus, people from Shanghai to San Francisco noticed bluer skies and an absence of smog. The previously haze-shrouded Himalayas were visible in northern parts of India for the first time in 30 years, and satellites showed cleaner air across the world’s continents.

Research backed the findings. One study found that harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution, which typically occurs through emissions from vehicles, power plants and industrial activities, decreased by 60 percent over northern China, Western Europe and the U.S. in early 2020 compared to the same time last year.

For a moment it seemed like there was a silver lining to the Covid-19 crisis. However, as lockdowns are eased, data indicates that air pollution is climbing back to pre-pandemic levels.

What does this mean for construction activity in a country like India, which has some of the worst urban air quality in the world?

Alongside significant health problems for hundreds of millions of people, poor air quality is hugely detrimental to economic growth. In fact, estimates from earlier this year showed that air quality problems are now costing India more than one percent of its annual GDP due to respiratory diseases, reduced productivity and increased hospitalisation.

Much of the public debate around measures to reduce pollution focuses on the use of cars and heavy industry, but the reality is that the construction sector also has a crucial role to play.

Increasingly, construction activity is centrally located in cities, producing a substantial amount of haulage vehicle movements, significant construction dust issues and commonplace use of outdated mechanical equipment running on diesel fuel.

The statistics speak for themselves. PM10 and PM2.5 are two out of eight criteria pollutants which typically define air quality. In cities like Delhi which according to the World Health Organization has the worst air pollution in the world, road dust, construction sites and concrete batching have been estimated to generate 70 percent of the PM10 and 46 percent of the PM2.5 emissions load. During the pandemic, the air quality index improved by almost 50 percent for these two criteria pollutants compared to last year.

It’s a situation that the Indian government is attempting to tackle with increasingly radical action. When air quality issues hit acute levels, Graded Action Plans (GRAPs) are enforced, which can lead to suspension of construction activity across cities.

What can India learn from other parts of the world?

As air quality continues to deteriorate, the construction sector must move quickly to stay ahead of tightened regulation and to demonstrate it is committed to solving this problem.

Although huge strides have been made in India over the past couple of years, including the introduction of anti-smog cannons and the installation of air quality monitors at construction sites across the National Capital Region (NCR), more can be learned from collaboration and knowledge-sharing with early adopters of pollution control measures and clean technologies.

Careful consideration must be paid to a supply chain that may be unaccustomed to having rules enforced and keeping abreast of current legislation. The introduction of Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules in 2016 will only make a difference if all stakeholders on projects are engaged and the minimum standard is implemented.

Above all, meaningful change will come from an adoption of global best practise standards. Construction companies need to push the decarbonisation strategy to the top of the agenda and build it into their business plans.

For our industry, this means construction firms in India can benefit from inroads made in countries that have been leading the way. It boils down to exploring solutions for renewable energy, removing diesel and embodied carbon from the construction process, using more sustainable building materials, and reducing water and waste. 

Continuous data collection, analysis and transparent reporting will help to assess the effectiveness of these measures and demonstrate the returns on investment. Ultimately it is this body of knowledge that will help to improve the air quality at construction sites across India.

The cleaner air that we breathed during the coronavirus lockdown is an encouraging reminder to the construction industry of our vital role in continuing to combat pollution in the regions where we operate. Now that we have had a glimpse of clear blue skies, we know that it is achievable.