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India needs better fuels, not just more of them

Pioneer 2018-12-06 00:00:00

We do not have the luxury of time to deal with the mounting air pollution problem that is choking almost all cities now. The time for desperate emergency measures is now gone. We need immediate policy interventions to make the shift to cleaner fuels

With Delhi’s air quality slipping again to the severe category, a series of desperate emergency measures, such as ban on construction activities and restrictions on traffic, has been imposed in the capital. The Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority is even considering a drastic ban on the use of non-CNG vehicles if air quality continues to deteriorate. Delhi is just a case in point. As many as 14 Indian cities figure in the notorious list of the world’s 20 ‘most polluted’, putting an entire generation of Indians at serious health risk.

Unfortunately, current policies seem to be working on two fronts — knee-jerk emergency measures (mostly coming from apex court directives) and long-term plans to shift to electricity. But make no mistake, rolling out electric vehicles (EVs) will take several decades. And Indian cities do not have the luxury of waiting for 50 years to see EVs become a reality. We need breathable air now! The need is for an immediate policy intervention to phase out the most polluting vehicles while bringing about a rapid shift to cleaner gaseous fuels, such as LPG and CNG.

BS-VI norms must be implemented immediately: Even among petrol and diesel run cars, the most polluting are the ones that adhere to 10-year-old emission standards. Replacing the current fleet of BS-IV vehicles by BS-VI compliant ones rapidly can bring about significant improvement in air quality. BS-VI norms can reduce PM 2.5 matter from diesel-run cars by 80 per cent and nitrogen oxides by 70 per cent. Nitogen Oxide emissions too will reduce by 25 per cent in petrol-run vehicles after the implementation of BS-VI norms while sulphur emissions are expected to come down from 50 parts per million to 10 ppm.

It was only last month that the Supreme Court had directed the Union Government to ensure that only BS-VI vehicles are sold in the country from April 1, 2020. The Government must set clear targets to achieve this goal, and look for ways for faster implementation by offering incentives and tax breaks to manufacturers to upgrade their technology. It is claimed that implementing these new norms will require an investment of nearly $0.013 trillion for new technology and upgradation of vehicles in inventory. However, the cost of unhealthy citizens owing to loss of man-hours worked on the national economy, at three per cent of the $2.6 trillion GDP, is still larger.

Shift to quickly deployable gaseous fuels: Instead of single-mindedly chasing the target of shifting to EVs, we need to look for some low-hanging fruits immediately. Switching public transport to CNG in 2001 had helped Delhi significantly improve its air quality in the initial years. However, these gains were offset by the rising number of private vehicles on the roads. It is necessary to convert a large number of private vehicles to gaseous fuels as well. Again, focussing on CNG will be another myopic act. Auto LPG is another viable and quickly deployable option for private vehicles.

In fact, auto LPG has several advantages over CNG. Globally, auto LPG is the third most commonly used automotive fuel after petrol and diesel; and seven of the 10 largest car manufacturers produce LPG-powered cars. Auto LPG occupies meagre space in car boots and can be transported in cylinders via lorries to reach distant outposts for quick accessibility. Rapidly shifting to a mix of these two gaseous fuels is a much easier task than shifting to EVs, and can bring about an immediate improvement in air quality.

The Government needs to incentivise vehicle owners who convert to auto LPG and CNG. Incentives, such as subsidising conversion costs and permit-free usage, can prompt a number of users to make the shift to cleaner fuels. One important policy intervention urgently required is changing the existing system of type approval by agencies like Automotive Research Association of India. The prohibitive approval cost, which is as high as Rs 4 crore every three years, has been extremely detrimental to the CNG and LPG retro fitment industry. Type Approval Validity must be made perpetual in line with European norms as there is absolutely no logic for the same vehicle to undergo the same cost prohibitive tests every three years.

Focus on two-wheelers: According to a recent report by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, emissions from the transport sector rose by a whopping 40 per cent between 2010 and 2018 in the NCR region. The total emission of the deadly particulate matter (PM 2.5) was found to have increased by 15 per cent over these eight years, with the transport sector accounting for 42.230 gigagrams of emission every year. Notably, more than 40 per cent of the vehicular pollution in Delhi comes from two-wheelers. Across the country, two-wheelers account for more than 75 per cent of the vehicular population.

Unfortunately, most policy interventions fail to address this significant cause of pollution. Two-wheeler pollution cannot be addressed by EVs in the long run. Much like four-wheelers, we need to start pushing two-wheelers towards cleaner fuels. Here again, auto LPG makes for the most viable alternative with a Two Wheeler Conversion Kit available at an affordable price of about Rs 5,000-5,500 along with a convenient side fitment of LPG tank.

Reward clean commuters: One of the most interesting examples is that of several European countries, such as France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy, that offer tax breaks to those cycling to work. The idea of rewarding sustainable commuting behaviour is reaping rich dividends. For example, over 400,000 Belgians, or nine per cent of the country’s workforce, receive a cycling reimbursement based on kilometres cycled to and from work. India can take a leaf or two out of these success stories and start incentivising its citizens who opt for green transport.

(The writer is Director-General, Indian Auto LPG Coalition)