With the worst of the winter pollution crisis in Delhi and other northern cities having subsided for the moment, the episodic clamour in the media, the judiciary, government agencies and among the public at large has also quietened down. No doubt it will flare up at the next peak in air pollution. Forgotten, it seems, are the short-term fixes furiously discussed then. And, in the days of instant media, nobody has the patience to discuss long-term solutions.
Efforts to obfuscate the nature of the problem, and hence the determined steps required to tackle it, continue as usual. In Parliament, no less, the Minister for Environment, ostensibly referring to last year’s study by IIT Kanpur which said precisely the opposite, misleadingly said that there was “no conclusive study available that burning of crop residue in Punjab and Haryana would always impact quality of air in Delhi,” cunningly hiding the obvious truth behind the term “always” so as to escape responsibility, which he then went on to conveniently place on the bureaucracy of those States!
Utter confusion on diesel
With regard to vehicular pollution, utter confusion reigns in Delhi on the steps needed to curb pollution caused by diesel vehicles, which emit among the most dangerous pollutants, but the issue is always sidelined by the extra attention paid to visible particulates. While diesel-powered trucks not heading for destinations within Delhi have been prohibited by the Supreme Court from entering the capital, measures to regulate diesel cars and SUVs have failed miserably due to overall confusion in and flip-flops by the Courts, and opposition from the government, both compounded by pressure and disinformation by diesel automobile manufacturers.
Diesel cars older than 10 years, later revised to 15 years, were first ordered to be phased out, only for the highest Court to overturn the order, leaving it applicable for Delhi alone. The NGT ordered no fresh registration of new diesel cars, including SUVs with over 2000cc engine capacity, and then later lifted this ban, imposing a measly cess of 1 percent on such vehicles. And the Delhi government has only one arrow in its quiver, the intermittently implemented odd-even scheme.
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And all the while the air pollution problem gets worse, more citizens die or suffer grievously from respiratory, cardiac or other ailments including cancers.
In sharp contrast, cities elsewhere in the world are taking stringent short-term as well as long-term measures to curb air pollution in cities, with diesel vehicles identified as major culprits. Whereas even these measures are less than perfect, and corporate lobbies still look for ways around them, the intention is clear, and the implementation pathway well outlined with sufficient time for effective outcomes. India could learn a lot from such examples, especially how not to obfuscate research-based findings and policy-making.
Decision at C40 Summit
At the recent biennial C40 Summit of forty cities from all over the world, formed to bring together all stakeholders to combat climate change and promote sustainable development, four cities namely Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens, declared that they will completely phase out all diesel trucks and cars by 2025, and “commit to doing everything in their power to incentivise the use of electric, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles.” This monumental decision needs to be recognized for what it is. Taken along with similar commitments by other major cities of the world, it heralds the beginning of the end for diesel vehicles, and a strong fillip to moves towards electric and other non-fossil fuel automobile engines.
That two major European cities are among the four taking this decision is highly significant. Almost 50 percent of cars in Europe are powered by diesel engines, and France has long had a strong presence of diesel cars. The decision by Paris to completely phase out diesel cars will send out a strong signal to automobile manufacturers who know that other European cities too will follow suit not much later. In the environmentally sensitive European market, car-makers increasingly take their cues from policy-makers who in turn respond to pressures from the public for cleaner vehicles. Car makers were already hurrying the development of electric, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles, and this decision by the four major will further accelerate this transition in the automobile industry.
These and other cities in Europe and elsewhere have already been taking stringent action against diesel-powered automobiles, recognizing the special dangers posed by such vehicles over and above those of the general vehicular fleet.
Paris for example has already taken several measures such as restricting entry of diesel vehicles registered before 1997, i.e. 20 year-old vehicles, with progressively stringent measures till 2020. Tokyo too had adopted strict measures against diesel vehicles more than a decade ago, especially prohibiting trucks and all vehicles without special pollutant-trapping filters fitted in their exhausts from entering Tokyo. In recent years, however, with the availability of local and imported cleaner diesel vehicles, Tokyo has unfortunately gone in the opposite direction, misled by outdated perceptions and deceptive industry propaganda bout how “clean” diesel is.
Several years ago, automobile manufacturers busily promoted the myth that contemporary diesel engines were far less polluting than petrol engines, and that technology had changed diesel engines from the dirty, smoke belching, high-vibration machines they once used to be to clean, fuel-efficient engines. They ascribed this to higher combustion efficiency of the new diesel engines, smoothening-out of engine operations, better quality of diesel fuel and higher emission standards. A powerful additional argument was that diesel vehicles emitted less carbon dioxide than petrol due to better combustion efficiency and were hence a technological ally in the struggle against climate change.
It did not take long for these myths to explode in the face of diesel manufacturers, especially in the global heart of diesel, Europe. Chiefly, while the performance of diesel engines with respect to carbon dioxide emissions is also being questioned, their contribution to local air pollution has emerged as a major cause of concern.
Thus diesel vehicles have come under increasing and intense scrutiny in recent years.
Diesel engines cause pollution due to release of fine particulate matter, both PM 2.5 and PM10, as well as emissions of the lesser known Nitrogen Oxides (NOx). In the debate on air pollution in Delhi, for instance, the acute danger posed by NOx has been largely ignored, both due to lack of knowledge among media commentators and because the smog caused by particulate matter is more visible.
Fine particulates penetrate the lungs and cause cardio-vascular ailments or even death. PM 2.5 is also known to cause cancer. This has necessitated sophisticated particulate filters to be fitted on diesel vehicle exhausts. While such filters are mandatory in most European countries, they are not in others, and users are known to often remove these filters so as to improve fuel-efficiency and performance.
NOx forms ground-level ozone which can cause respiratory problems, even in those without any pre-existing breathing ailments. Whereas smog caused by particulates are exacerbated in wintery conditions due to the cold air keeping particulates down, ozone formation is accelerated in bright sunny conditions. NOx also results in formation of what are known as secondary particulates, that is when other gases and water vapour combine with diverse aerosols to form particulates, whose exact nature is not very well understood but which undoubtedly add to the particulate pollution load. Tests conducted by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) show that modern diesel cars emit on average seven times the EU limit for NOx.
As a result of mounting evidence against diesel, most cities in developed countries today call for a range of restrictions on diesel vehicles, the peak being the decision of 4 major cities to ban diesel vehicles altogether by 2025.
Following rising pollution levels in London, a highly rated academic study found the city’s famed red diesel buses to be mainly responsible. London has since embarked on a phased withdrawal of the diesel buses but was facing difficulties in procuring alternative vehicles. Since then, scientists, think tanks, civil society organizations and city authorities have all added their voice to the clamour for strict controls on, and eventual phase-out of, diesel vehicles.
London has now designated an “ultra low emission zone” in the centre of the city from which, among other measures, diesel buses will be banned, and newly elected Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing for an enlargement of this zone. He has also criticized the British Government for failing to move faster on vehicular air pollution, especially by diesel vehicles, and called upon the Government to introduce and implement a national diesel scrapping policy wherein owners will be incentivized to scrap their diesel vehicles and buy new, less polluting vehicles, along the lines of Germany’s programme of scrapping vehicles older than 10 years, which has been credited with lowering pollution as well as boosting the German economy out of the depression then gripping Europe. Sadiq Khan has also called for a revision of excise duties that make it relatively cheaper to buy diesel automobiles, much like India, where many experts including a government-appointed Panel had called for a substantial cess on new diesel vehicles to compensate for the cheaper diesel fuel it would consume over its lifetime, and level the playing field between petrol and diesel-driven cars.
Indian policy-makers would do well to learn from their counterparts in these cities and others in Europe and elsewhere. There is growing realization in these places and their policy makers that urgent and strict action against air pollution, to which diesel vehicles are a major contributor, is not only essential to save lives and massive health-care costs, but is also an important part of the battle against greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.