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A UN-backed carbon offsetting project is poisoning my neighbourhood

A project that releases toxic fumes into a densely populated area should not be able to earn revenue from the sale of carbon credits.

Sukhdev Vihar residents protests against the Okhla waste-to-energy plant. Ranjit Devraj/TNH
Sukhdev Vihar residents protest against the Okhla waste-to-energy plant in March 2019.

When I first moved to Sukhdev Vihar two decades ago, it was a near-idyllic place to live. The New Delhi neighbourhood borders on a major bird sanctuary and is surrounded by educational and research institutions. 

But since 2011, the area has become infamous as the site of the Okhla waste-to-energy plant, which burns some 2,000 tonnes of waste every day, spewing noxious emissions above residents’ homes and making people sick.

The plant claims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by converting municipal waste into a supposedly clean fuel source known as refuse-derived fuel, or RDF. If produced properly, RDF can emit less greenhouse gas than some fossil fuels. 

Aside from being promoted as a flagship project for waste management in New Delhi, the Okhla plant has also been certified by the UN as a producer of carbon credits. By supplying energy from RDF to the local power grid, the plant claims to reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels and prevent a certain quantity of greenhouse gas emissions. 

For every metric tonne of carbon dioxide the plant prevents from being emitted, it can sell one carbon credit through a UN-run system.

In 2011, I and other residents joined a committee set up by a government minister to investigate how the plant works and whether it is as clean as it claims to be. 

We inspected the plant’s project design, its environmental certifications, and even the interior of the plant itself. We found a multitude of discrepancies between what the plant claims in its design documents and what exists on the ground.

For instance, the plant’s environmental impact assessment claims it is located five kilometres from Sukhdev Vihar, when in fact it is only 30 metres away. This violates government limits on how close a waste-treatment facility can be to where people live. 

We have also supplied both the UN and India’s environmental court with evidence that the energy produced by the Okhla plant is nowhere near clean. In fact, the equipment required to turn the city’s waste into RDF was never installed, and the plant instead generates energy by burning a combination of diesel, wet kitchen waste, and plastic. 

India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change reprimanded the plant over these instances of non-compliance in 2019.

We’ve also seen half-burnt plastic among the ash from the Okhla plant’s incinerator. This indicates that the incinerator is not hot enough to eliminate harmful particles like dioxins and furans. It was therefore no surprise that an inspection ordered by India’s environmental court in 2020 found that the plant’s emissions of dioxins and furans were nearly nine times the permitted amount.

A view of the smokestack of the Okhla waste-to-energy plant.
Ranjit Devraj/TNH
A view of the smokestack of the Okhla waste-to-energy plant.

Meanwhile, doctors in the area have reported unusually high levels of respiratory, cardiac, and other ailments among Sukhdev Vihar residents. 

Residents of the neighbourhood have staged dozens of rallies, candlelight marches, and highway blockages since before the plant became operational, signalling our concerns to the plant’s operator, to the local government, and to the UN.

Despite the evidence we’ve presented and the protests we’ve staged, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat continues to allow the Okhla plant to issue carbon credits. 

As a recent investigation by The New Humanitarian and Mongabay discovered, the Okhla plant is one of the hundreds of carbon offsetting projects that the UN itself buys credits from in order to claim to be almost completely climate neutral.

A project that releases toxic fumes into a densely populated area should not be able to earn revenue from the sale of carbon credits. UNFCCC needs to respond to the numerous petitions signed by hundreds of Sukhdev Vihar residents and investigate the Okhla plant and its health impacts. 

For those concerned about climate change, the big question is: What role should waste-to-energy plants play? 

The Okhla plant is one of more than a dozen waste-to-energy plants certified by UNFCCC to sell carbon credits. If the UN allows the Okhla plant to issue carbon credits via a fictitious route toward producing low-emission energy, then questions should arise for all UN-certified waste-to-energy plants, and potentially for other types of UN-backed offsetting projects.

Personally, my main concern is still New Delhi, a city with one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world, and where the UN continues to implicitly endorse direct incineration as a solution to waste management. 

The UN’s patronage of the Okhla plant encourages additional investment into waste-to-energy plants around the city, which further endangers local residents, all on the pretence of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. 

For years, I and other residents have called for the Okhla plant to be shut down, and if necessary, moved to a location where it can comply with India’s environmental laws. 

Two years ago, I was hospitalised for COVID-19, and I have had breathing difficulties ever since. Other Sukhdev Vihar residents also reported difficulties recovering from the virus, which we believe was exacerbated by exposure to the Okhla plant. 

With our legal challenges against the plant dragging on interminably and the plant set to expand to burning an additional 1,000 tonnes of waste per day by the end of this year, I made the decision last month to to leave Sukhdev Vihar and relocate to Kerala, in southern India. I advised my neighbours to leave too. 

I still support my former neighbours remotely by consulting with the lawyers fighting our case against the plant in India’s Supreme Court.

The UN cannot shut down the Okhla plant, but it can prevent it from being an internationally recognised producer of carbon credits. It can stop the plant from marketing itself as a solution to the climate crisis.

UNFCCC needs to seriously consider whether it wants to continue contributing to this smouldering environmental and public health disaster in a major world capital.

Edited by Paisley Dodds and Jacob Goldberg.

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