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India’s New Plan to Cut Pollution

Like most developing countries, India has two major problems. One is high unemployment caused by an exploding population, and the other, as a result of the first, is poor environmental management. The first leads to a stunted economy and the latter leads to pollution. Six of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in India, according to the World Health Organization. None is ranked higher than New Delhi.

India can’t transform its economy or transition to clean energy overnight. So while it continues to develop—a process that involves creating even more pollution—the Indian government has a verdant idea: Plant two billion trees.

Nitin Jairam Gadkari, an Indian government official with the roll-off-the-tongue title of Road Transport, Highways, Shipping, and Rural Development Minister, announced an ambitious plan this month to put up to 300,000 young people to work digging holes and planting trees. India’s under-30 demographic is the largest chunk of the country’s 10.2 percent unemployed. “I have asked officials,” Gadkari told an Indian newspaper, “to come out with a plan to plant two billion trees which in turn would create jobs for the unemployed on the one hand and protect the environment on the other.”

What kind of trees? That is yet to be determined, along with how much maintenance they’d need. The location he has in mind is along the India’s nearly 62,000 miles of highways.The right trees could make a decent difference: Some species, like sycamores and oaks, can remove several pounds of pollutants like metal particulates and ozone from the air each year. Then multiply that by a few billion.

If the tree-planting comes to pass, India’s government would presumably absorb the cost, which wouldn’t be cheap. Despite its second-biggest-in-the-world population of 1.2 billion, India’s GDP is just $1.8 trillion (compared to the U.S.’s $15.6 trillion or China’s $8.4 trillion), with a lot of room to grow. But if India’s interested in keeping its air clean while it builds a competitive economy, a few billion for trees would be a potent stimulus package. And in a country often accused of environmental disregard, it would be an impressive spurt of green jobs.