The why and how of environmental protection: Examining the evidence

  • Blog Post Date 29 April, 2024
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Nalini Gulati

Editorial Advisor, I4I


In the first post of a three-part blog series, I4I Editorial advisor Nalini Gulati summarises a selection of studies on the adverse impact of environmental degradation on human health as well as economic outcomes, followed by ideas from research on how effective policy design and implementation can mitigate the damage and enable conservation of the environment.

The Indian Meteorological Department has predicted that the summer months are likely to be hotter than usual this year, with a higher number of heatwave days. The drop in voter turnout in the first phase of the general elections, from 69.9% in 2019 to 65.5% in the same constituencies this year, is largely being attributed to the extreme heat. Bengaluru, India’s IT hub, has been grappling with an acute water crisis over the past few months – with experts fearing that the worst is yet to come. Air pollution in the capital city of New Delhi in the winter of 2023 was worse than in the previous year, causing complications for residents with respiratory ailments. These recent headlines make it amply clear that the harmful effects of environmental degradation are multifarious, grave and impossible to escape. 

Poor health of environment translates to poor health of humans

Various studies have documented the adverse impact of ambient air pollution on health, particularly for children. Analysing satellite data on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) together with National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 data, Bali et al. (2020) find that in-utero exposure to air pollution during the first trimester negatively impacts child growth indicators. Along similar lines, Vyas (2020) shows that children who are born within 50 kilometres of a median-sized coal plant are shorter than those born with no such coal plant exposure. Furthermore, exposed children are expected to be less likely to read (by 0.5 percentage points), and to have lower hourly earnings (if this height deficit persists into adulthood). Leveraging seasonal variation in air quality caused by upwind agricultural fires, Pullabhotla (2019) uncovers that an increase in PM10 by 10 micrograms/cubic metre results in almost 96,000 under-five deaths annually. 

Besides outdoor air pollution, bad air inside homes also harms children’s health. In their post, Chafe et al. (2019) state that the median estimate of contribution of household air pollution to ambient PM2.5 is in the range of 22-30%. In this context, Balietti and Mittal (2017) demonstrate that living in a household that burns solid fuels is associated with 6.5% of stunting cases in under-three children in India. As per this analysis, fuel type used is almost half as influential as malnutrition in terms of impact on stunting. 

Earlier research has also explored the effect of water pollution on children’s health. Analysing the significant drop in pollution in the Ganga river near tanneries in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh in response to a Supreme Court ruling, Joshi (2016) notes a reduction in infant mortality in the city: when the water became 40% more likely to fall in the ‘fit-for-bathing’ category, mortality among one-year-olds dropped by 50%. In a recent study, Frank and Sudarshan (2023) establish a link between collapse in vulture population and human mortality on account of worsening sanitation. More broadly, the authors highlight that climate change may impose stress on some species, and their roles in the ecosystem may not be replaced by other species, leading to negative outcomes. Hence, it is important to understand that while certain human activities cause damage to the ecosystem, the health of humans and of ecosystems are in fact intertwined.   

When the environment suffers, the economy does too

Noting that the evidence on the ‘non-health’ impacts of air pollution is relatively less well-known, Aguilar-Gomez et al. (2023) summarise studies that capture the harm caused by air pollution to day-to-day worker productivity in various industries through impaired cognitive and physical performance – despite no diagnosable disease. 

Given that a large proportion of India’s population continues to have climate-dependent agrarian livelihoods, a segment of the literature has assessed the impact of climate change on agriculture. Garg, Jagnani and Taraz (2018) show that higher-than-normal temperatures in a particular year pull down agricultural incomes in the same year, and have large negative impacts on children’s human capital in the subsequent year. In a 2020 study, Blakeslee, Fishman and Srinivasan collect data on 1,500 farmers in rural areas surrounding Bengaluru, Karnataka, which face drought conditions. The researchers discover that farmers whose wells dried up experienced 25% lower incomes than those with operational wells. Farmers were not able to adapt cultivation to water shortage, but those in areas with presence of large-scale manufacturing managed to move out of agriculture. However, a downside was that adolescents were also pulled out of school to take up these employment opportunities. 

Delving into the impact of climate change-induced temperature variability on household consumption expenditure during 1987-2012, Aggarwal (2023) uncovers sectoral inequality: while farmers and industrial workers in rural India experienced consumption declines on average, living standards improved for those working in services irrespective of region. 

Ideas for policy

Besley and Hussain (2023) highlight that a key climate action governments can take is the phase-out of coal-fired power in favour of cleaner alternatives. Using global attitudes data on ambient air quality perceptions from 51 countries, including India, the researchers compute citizens’ willingness-to-pay to phase-out coal power. Combining this with measures of well-being of residents in close proximity to power plants, they conclude that the benefits of switching to solar or wind energy are large enough to justify investing in a green transition involving the shut-down of coal plants.  

Energy economist Anant Sudarshan (2016) notes that “much of India’s strategy to reduce fossil fuels relies on a transition to renewable energy, namely solar.” Noting that adoption of off-grid solar technologies remains low despite their potential of filling gaps in electricity supply, Mahadevan, Meeks and Yamano (2022) explore the constraint of information availability. In their study in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha, they focus on low- and middle-income customers – groups that are targeted by the government for subsidies in order to keep this energy source affordable. It is seen that when potential consumers are provided accurate product information loaded on a mobile application on electronic tablets during the sales process, they express stronger interest in adopting solar home systems. 

To address air pollution in North India due to crop residue burning, the government banned this practice in 2015 and has been subsidising machinery that can help remove and manage residue. For instance, as recommended by Gupta and Somanathan (2016), the government is providing large subsidies on equipment such as ‘happy seeders’ – tractor-mounted machines that cut and lift rice straw, sow the next crop wheat into the soil, and deposit the straw over the sown area as mulch. To enhance the impact of these policies, a study in Punjab by Jack et al. (2023) demonstrates that greater compliance can be achieved through well-designed ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ (PES) programmes that give farmers (that may lack liquidity and/or trust in the offered contract) partial upfront payments. 

Political will matters too. Surveying village council leaders in Punjab, Jagnani and Mahadevan (2023) find that women leaders are more likely to consider crop fires a very serious issue – possibly because they are more concerned about the associated health costs for children, display greater awareness of relevant government policies, and are more likely to strongly favour regulations aimed at curtailing crop fires. At an all-India level, the researchers find that the election of a female Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) over a male counterpart in a close contest decreases crop fires by 13% and monthly maximum biomass-related particulate emissions by 40%. 

Acknowledging the high environmental cost of supplying water – a scare natural resource that is expected to further deplete with global warming – Vivek, Malghan and Mukherjee (2021) write that current usage by affluent populations is unsustainably high, while for disadvantaged groups availability is too low for a reasonable quality of life. The authors test a behavioural intervention in a well-off residential community in Bengaluru encompassing the provision of a weekly water-usage report to households, a suggested water-use goal with feedback on performance, and tips on meeting the goal. They find that the resulting ‘habit change’ led to reduced water consumption – without any economic incentives or restrictions. 

Turning attention to forest conservation, an important policy move in India was the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, which adopts a rights-based approach to forest conservation, seeking to place local communities at the centre of forest governance (Gedam 2021). However, claims to land rights are often rejected (Kukreti 2020) and even in cases where forest dwellers hold titles, the forest department does not seek community consent in the management of forest resources and may carry out afforestation projects on land under cultivation by forest dwellers” (Nandwani 2023). In her post, Nandwani emphasises the need to adapt existing forest conservation legislations such as the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, whereby compensatory afforestation funds (paid by entities diverting forest land for non-forest purposes) are managed by state governments. Hence, there is a pressing need to harmonise conservation efforts and social justice for forest dwellers. 

Finally, good data are essential for effective policy design and implementation for environment conservation. Mehta and Pohit (2023) discuss the example of a project undertaken by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in collaboration with Tata Centre for Development (TCD), which used automated sensors attached to boats to collect data on water quality parameters at key points along the Ganga river in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. They contend that such information can help understand the sources of pollution in order to craft suitable policy as well as ensure regulatory compliance. At a macro level, focusing on India’s target of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensity of GDP (gross domestic product) under the Paris Agreement, Jain (2020) finds that there are differences in the relevant data captured by country reports and third-party sources. She makes suggestions for improving official reporting, such as annual publication of GHG inventories to improve tracking and monitoring of achievements. 

The evidence makes a compelling case for immediate actions to curtail further environmental degradation, both to protect human health and well-being and to promote economic progress. Awareness and information provision, political will, behavioural interventions targeted at the users of environmental services, and good data are all important ingredients in the design and implementation of effective environmental policies. 

This article was published in collaboration with the IGC blog as a part of the upcoming India Sustainable Growth Conference at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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