Adopt more stringent fuel quality and emission standards — and push for the national automobile pollution and fuel authority
Approximately 20 years ago, in 1995, a process was started that held great promise for ameliorating the serious air pollution problem in Delhi. Under a provision of the Indian Constitution, environmental lawyer M.C. Mehta filed a public interest litigation with the Supreme Court, seeking relief from the serious health risks caused by motor vehicle pollution. The court responded with a series of orders between 1996 and 2001 that reduced the sulphur content of diesel and petrol, eliminated leaded petrol, required premixed lubricating oil and petrol to replace the loose supply of these fuels for two-stroke engines and ordered the retirement of commercial vehicles older than 15 years.
Most notably, the court ordered the conversion of all commercial passenger vehicles — buses, taxis and three-wheelers — to compressed natural gas (CNG). As a direct result of these measures, as the 21st century began, the air quality in Delhi actually began to improve.
And more progress was still to come. Under the leadership of the Supreme Court, the ministry of petroleum and natural gas appointed the R.A. Mashelkar Committee, which put in place a roadmap to steadily improve the quality of both petrol and diesel fuel and to require all new cars and trucks and buses to install pollution control equipment that would gradually lower the emissions. By 2010, all new vehicles sold in Delhi and 12 other cities were meeting the same pollution levels as similar vehicles were meeting in Europe in 2005. Petrol and diesel fuel in these cities had sulphur levels capped at 50 parts per million.
However, after the committee issued its report in 2003, other than the new vehicle and clean fuels standards, most of its other recommendations were ignored. For example, the 2003 Mashelkar Auto Fuel Policy Committee had recommended the establishment of a national automobile pollution and fuel authority responsible for all vehicle emissions and related fuel-quality issues. This authority was expected to be proactive in establishing future standards and regulations. But this recommendation is yet to be adopted.
At the same time, the marketplace for cars and light trucks was distorted by fuel pricing such that a switch from petrol to diesel was strongly encouraged. One could hardly imagine a more disastrous policy for public health, as diesel cars emit much higher levels of very small hazardous particles and at least three times as much NOx, some of which are directly hazardous and some that undergo transformations in the atmosphere to further exacerbate the problem of small particles, cause the formation of another hazardous pollutant, ozone, or photochemical smog. Diesel cars sold in the US and Japan are equipped with much more advanced pollution controls, such as particle filters, and are as clean as their petrol-fueled counterparts. But India stopped vehicle emissions and fuel-quality standards at the Euro IV equivalent.
As a result, the air quality in Delhi and across India has deteriorated badly, squandering the gains achieved in the past decade and a half. According to the World Health Organisation, Delhi may today be the most polluted city in the world. A major global health study concluded that air pollution caused primarily by small particles is the fifth leading mortality risk factor in India and caused an estimated 6,27,000 premature deaths in 2010. Further, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recently estimated that air pollution is costing the Indian economy about $0.5 trillion each year.
India has shown leadership in the past in tackling its air pollution problems and must rise to the occasion again. It can look to the experience of cities like Los Angeles and Tokyo to see that even with high growth in vehicle population, pollution levels can come down.
But perhaps it would be better to look at its neighbour closer to home, Beijing, which has also been plagued by serious air pollution in recent years. Beijing has put in place an aggressive action plan with 22 specific measures directed at lowering motor vehicle emissions.
Officials have set up a lottery system to restrict the monthly sales of new vehicles in the city, adopted a schedule to require new vehicles to be as clean as anyplace in the world by 2016 or 2017, mandated annual checks of all vehicles on the road, restricted the types of vehicles allowed to be used in the heart of the city during the workday to only the cleanest and matched the lowest sulphur fuels as anywhere in the world. In addition, bus and rail transit systems will be expanded substantially, and will require one million older vehicles to be scrapped by 2017.
Urban access regulations are among the most widespread and successful approaches that cities can take to address their air pollution problems. They can take several different forms, such as congestion charges or low emission zones (LEZ), where only cleaner vehicles can enter, or by limiting the times different types of vehicles can enter. Over 250 cities in Europe have such schemes in place. To cite just one example of the impact, Berlin has seen a 58 per cent reduction in diesel particles classified as human carcinogens by the WHO. Further, the Berlin LEZ has also reduced NOx emissions by 20 per cent.
Another key element of the Beijing programme has been the prohibition of sales of diesel cars without particle filters. Steps in this direction have also recently spread to Europe, where the mayor of Paris has called for a ban on diesel cars from the city by 2020.
What can Delhi do? Quite a bit. First, it can look to the “Auto Fuel Vision and Policy, 2025” report by the Saumitra Chaudhuri Committee, submitted to the government over 10 months ago. This committee was charged with establishing a roadmap for fuel quality and vehicle emission standards through 2025 and concluded, among other things, that the country could switch to ultra-low sulphur fuels with a maximum of 10 PPM sulphur by 2020. With this fuel quality, each new diesel car, truck and bus in the country should be required to meet state-of- the-art emissions standards and be equipped with a wall-flow particulate filter. Just as Beijing is doing, Delhi should also enhance the Euro requirements by adding onboard refuelling vapour recovery and eliminating evaporative emissions. The annual inspection of in-use vehicles must be upgraded, beginning with buses and trucks and gradually expanding it to include all vehicles. It should also push for the creation of the national automobile pollution and fuel authority responsible for all vehicle emissions and related fuel quality issues.
Beyond that, following the lead of Beijing and many other cities, it can establish urban access regulations to restrict the use of the dirtiest vehicles in major parts of the city. Special restrictions on the sale and use of diesel cars can also be an important element of Delhi’s overall strategy.
If Delhi moves forward in close coordination with the national government, the problem can once again be turned around and the residents of Delhi can once again see gradual progress towards clean and healthy air quality.
The writer, a mechanical engineer, has spent his career working on motor vehicle pollution control issues at the local, national and international levels. He is the founding chairman of the board of directors of the International Council on Clean Transportation