Choking Cities: Immediate measures needed to make air breathable for citizens

Immediate measures needed to make air breathable for citizens

By Suyash Gupta, Director General, Indian Auto LPG Coalition

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

Unfortunately, the current policies seem to be working on two fronts – responding by immediate knee-jerk emergency measures (mostly coming from Supreme Court directives) and focusing on long-term plans to shift to electricity. Make no mistake – rolling out electric vehicles (EVs) will take several decades of work and infrastructural development. Indian cities do not have the luxury of waiting for decades to see EVs become a reality. We need breathable air now. What we need are concrete and immediate policy interventions to phase out the most polluting vehicles while bringing about a rapid shift to cleaner gaseous fuels such as auto liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and CNG.

Implementing strict BS-VI norms for vehicles immediately

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 itself bring about significant improvements in air quality. BS-VI norms for car manufacturers can reduce particulate matter (PM) 2.5 from diesel cars by 80 per cent and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 70 per cent. NOx emissions will be 25 per cent lower in petrol vehicles after implementation of BS-VI norms while sulphur emissions are expected to come down from 50 parts per million (ppm) to 10 ppm. Recently, the Supreme Court directed the government to ensure that only BS-VI vehicles are sold in the country from April 1, 2020. The government must set itself 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 $13 billion in new technology and for upgradation of vehicles in inventory. However, the cost to the economy resulting from a loss of manhours (owing to unhealthy citizens) is about 3 per cent of the country’s $2.6 trillion GDP (2017).

Shifting to quickly deployable gaseous fuels

Rather than single-mindedly chasing the target of shifting to EVs – a process that will take at least three-four decades to materialise – we need to look for some low-hanging fruits immediately. For instance, switching its 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. Therefore, it is necessary to convert a large number of private vehicles to gaseous fuels as well. Again, focusing on only CNG will be myopic.

Auto LPG is another very viable and quickly deployable option for private vehicles. In fact, auto LPG has several advantages over CNG including five to six times lower installation cost for refuelling stations and lower engine performance loss. 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 kits occupy 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 also 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 shift to the cleaner fuels. One important policy intervention that is urgently required is changing the existing system of “type approval” by agencies such as the Automotive Research Association of India. The prohibitive approval cost – as high as Rs 40 million every three years – has been extremely detrimental to the CNG and LPG retrofit industry. The 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 expensive tests every three years.

Focus on two-wheelers as well

According to a recent report prepared by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, emissions from the transport sector have risen by a whopping 40 per cent between 2010 and 2018 in the National Capital Region. The total emission of PM 2.5 was found to have increased by 15 per cent over these eight years (2010-18), with the transport sector accounting for 42.23 gigagrams of emissions annually. 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 vehicle population. Unfortunately, most policy interventions fail to address this significant cause of pollution. Pollution from two-wheelers will not be addressed by EVs even in the long run. Much like four-wheelers, we need to start pushing two-wheelers towards cleaner fuels as well. Here again, auto LPG makes for the most viable alternative with two-wheeler conversion kits available at an affordable price of Rs 5,000-Rs 5,500 along with a convenient side fitment of the LPG tank.

Reward clean commuters

One of the most interesting examples is that of several European countries such as France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy offering tax breaks to people who cycle to work. The idea of rewarding sustainable commuting behaviour is reaping rich dividends. For example, over 400,000 Belgians, or 9 per cent of the country’s workforce, receive a cycling reimbursement based on kilometres cycled to and from work.

India should take a leaf out of these success stories and start by incentivising citizens who chose green transport options. Measures such as interest-free loans for buying electric or hybrid cars and subsidies for converting to auto LPG and CNG are options that must be explored to bring about a change in consumer behaviour.