New Delhi closes schools and construction sites amid thick fog covering the city

The sky is obscured by a thick gray haze of smoke. Monuments and tall buildings swallowed up by the mist. People are struggling to breathe.

In the Indian capital, it’s that time of year again.

The city’s air quality index fell to a “very poor” category on Sunday, according to SAFAR, India’s main environmental monitoring agency, and in many areas, levels of deadly particulate matter reached around six times the global safety threshold.

NASA satellite images also showed that most of the northern plains of India are covered in thick fog.

Among the many breathtaking Indian cities, New Delhi tops the list every year. The crisis is exacerbated, especially in the winter, when the burning of crop residues in neighboring countries coincides with cooler temperatures trapping the deadly smoke. This smoke travels to New Delhi, adding to the pollution in the city of more than 20 million people and exacerbating an already public health crisis.

Construction sites and schools closed for 4 days

The New Delhi government on Saturday ordered the closure of schools for a week and construction sites for a period of four days starting on Monday. Government offices have also been asked to commute to work from home for a week to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

Arvind Kejriwal, the capital’s most senior elected leader, said a complete lockdown of the city was likely, but that the decision would be taken after consulting with the federal government.

India’s pollution problems are not limited to the capital.

People play cricket as smog envelopes the sky in the outskirts of New Delhi on Sunday. (Altaf Qadri/The Associated Press)

Emissions from industries without pollution control technology and coal, which helps produce most of the country’s electricity, have been linked to poor air quality in other urban areas.

India’s energy needs are expected to grow faster in the coming decades than any other country. Part of this demand is expected to be met by polluting coal power, a major source of carbon emissions that pollute the air.

That’s why India on Saturday demanded a last-minute change to the final agreement at crucial climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, calling for a “phasing down” rather than a “phasing out” of coal power.

India’s Environment Minister Bhubandar Yadav has opposed a clause on coal phase-out, saying that developing countries “have a right to the responsible use of fossil fuels”.

Many experts criticized the move. They worry that this has weakened the final agreement and could also hamper India’s fight against climate change and deteriorating air quality.

“It’s totally undesirable,” said Samrat Sengupta, director of the Climate Change and Energy Program at the Center for Science and Environment, a think tank. But he also said that India needed enough “carbon space” in the atmosphere to meet its development needs to coexist with the global ambition of limiting warming to 1.5°C since pre-industrial times.

Coal phasing out ‘technically impossible’

“Coal phase-out is technically impossible at the moment. None of the scenarios can predict that India will not have any dependence on coal by 2050,” Sengupta said.

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the country would aim to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2070 – two decades after the US, and at least 10 years after China.

Coal reserves in India contain a high proportion of ash which burns inefficiently and leads to increased air pollution. But millions of Indians depend on coal for their livelihood.

“In our country, this is the only means of making a living. If foreign countries say we should stop using coal, what will we eat?” said Hari Ram, a coal dealer.

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