Great convergence: Health, climate and vehicles | Centre for Science and Environment

Great convergence: Health, climate and vehicles

The recently-released annual global energy trend tracker, World Energy Outlook (WEO), 2007 of the International Energy Agency, has sounded the alert on India crossing the tipping point of per capita GDP of $3000. This threshold, once crossed, says WEO, vehicle ownership rates begin to escalate rapidly. The rolling stock of vehicles continuously locks up huge amount of energy and carbon. Increases toxic emissions in our cities. Suddenly, widely different concerns have converged around vehicles – public health, fuel splurge and climate impacts.

For the first time, Indian regulators are faced with this explicit connection. This is the challenge of the balance – curb local air pollution to save lives, and at the same time, shrink carbon and energy imprints of vehicles to save fuels and the planet. The same vehicles that spew life-threatening toxic fumes also emit heat trapping gases. Even before Indian cities could deal with deaths and illnesses from toxic air, the global warming imprints of transport have tiptoed onto their agenda. This double burden of risks demands active policies to cut the carbon intensity of transport and also offset the potential growth of toxic emissions. But this synergy is the weakest link in our policies today. We are caught in serious trade-offs instead.

The convergence…

  • More than a half of our cities are choking on critical levels of particulates, while a third have hopped from low to moderately high levels of nitrogen dioxides. Rapidly rising vehicles are lacing the air with more toxics. In a study of Delhi residents, the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute reports chromosomal damage in 24 per cent, and lung function impairment in 60 per cent of the city’s residents. Can we carry on with uncontrolled motorization and expose more to harmful emissions?
  • All vehicles in India that currently use 27 per cent of the country’s primary oil demand will guzzle 47 per cent – close to half, by 2030 (WOE, 2007). This increase will largely be driven by light-duty vehicles, mainly cars - the fastest growing segment – at an annual average growth of 10 per cent by 2030. Cars will burn up nearly the same amounts of total energy consumed by the entire transport sector today, even though heavy-duty vehicles will splurge the most. Can we afford this when nearly 85 per cent of our crude oil needs will be imported at exorbitant rates by 2030?


  • The same vehicles are guilty of increasing heat trapping gases. Consider this – the total consumption of oil is responsible for 57 per cent of the CO2 in the country today. And among all oil-consuming sectors, CO2 emissions from transport are increasing at the fastest rate – at more than 6 per cent per annum. This is daunting for any national combat plan for climate and public health. Even globally, curbing warming gases from the transport sector has proven to be the most difficult. How can we avoid increase in GHG gases if cars drive the trend?

Clearly, the distinction between local and global challenges is more blurred today especially as science uncovers the subtle links between local emissions and the growing GHG stock in the atmosphere. It is such a complex web -- toxic hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides that make us ill also form regional ozone and add to the global background tropospheric ozone. Carbon monoxide that smothers us turns into carbon dioxide, and in the process, uses up hydroxyl radicals that otherwise would have mopped up methane. So methane builds up in the atmosphere. Even diesel PM that is known to increase toxic particulates also traps heat….

We cannot draw lines any more. But we can certainly minimize the potential conflicts in strategies and not end up increasing one at the cost of the other -- reduce both health and ecosystems risks. Estimates from Seoul show that efforts to mitigate PM10 can save close to 100 premature deaths per annum, and at the same time help lower 2.25 to 6.75 million tonnes of carbon equivalent. But are these links automatic? Not necessary. The pairing of local air pollution control and CO2 reduction programmes can be weak or negative and even work at cross purposes.

India is already inextricably caught in negative trade-offs.

  • Devil’s engines, on diesel: The car industry is aggressive and public policy is tacitly supportive of diesel cars because these are more fuel efficient and emit less CO2. Clearly ignoring the acute toxic effects of diesel emissions. They also overlook the rebound effect of diesel cars on CO2 emissions. Cheap diesel fuel induces more driving. Diesel fuel also has higher carbon content. Result - more CO2 from more fuel burnt. Look at the UK -- between 1996 and 2005, and despite improvements in fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions from private cars rose by 4 per cent because of a 10 per cent increase in driving distances. Also PM10 emissions reduction slowed down from 29 per cent initially to only 3 per cent in later years due to increased use of, and emissions from, diesel cars. And now science also implicates black carbon emissions from diesel vehicles as a potent greenhouse pollutant! The only answer to this trade- off is clean diesel fuels and technologies. Another alternative: restrain diesel cars.
  • The Asian dilemma, two-wheelers: No other vehicle can rival the energy efficiency and CO2 benefits of two-wheelers in the world today. Indian two-wheelers have achieved CO2 emissions as low as 45 gm/km in contrast to the global best CO2 emissions achieved by hybrid cars at 104 gm/km. But the share of two-wheelers -- nearly 80 per cent of the vehicles stock in India, but which consume only 15 per cent of the country’s total transport fuels -- will plateau to 50 per cent in 2030 (WEO, 2007). The energy penalty can be quite drastic. But the benefits from their low carbon footprint can only be maximized if their harmful emissions are minimized with the most stringent emissions standards.
  • Compromising our strength, public transport: On average, by 2030, Indians will travel thrice as many kilometers as they traveled during 2000-01. If neglected the impressive modal share of public transport may drop from 75.7 per cent in 2001-02 to 44.7 per cent in 2030-31. The current policy obsession with more roads, more parking spaces and more fiscal sops will only bring more cars. Public policies must avert this. The International Energy Agency estimates a 100 per cent difference in oil use in a future scenario dominated by high quality bus systems as opposed to personal vehicles in Delhi. Likewise, the Asian Development Bank projects that Bangalore can save 21 per cent of fuel consumption if it increases its share of public transport from the current 62 per cent to 80 per cent. Clearly, cities cannot afford to trade-off car restraint policies for car-centric growth.
  • Avoid efficiency trade-offs: India made the biggest mistake when it discontinued the policy on setting fuel efficiency targets for cars during the 80s. It erroneously thought that the emissions regulations thereafter would suffice to push technology to meet fuel economy and emissions objectives. Wrong. Fuel efficiency gains since then have been swamped by sheer vehicle numbers, and by the increased power and size of vehicles on Indian roads. Already the mini cars have dropped nearly by half since 2000, allowing the steady shift towards bigger cars. Only properly designed mandatory fuel economy standards can offset this trend.
  • More roads, more troubles: Indian cities are expanding fast; inducing more driving. More than 70 per cent of Delhi’s incoming traffic comprises personal vehicles. Also, lopsided policies allow trucks to ferry more goods than railways. The share of rail freight is abysmal at 26 per cent. More trucks mean more fuel expended -- the same trucks spew the deadliest pollutants when they cut across cities. Yet we continue to build more highways. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook (2006) predicts that in India, the transportation energy demand could grow faster than anticipated if all of the new highway projects currently under consideration are completed.

The sign post: There is no reason why India must remain entangled in clean air vs. low carbon growth trade-offs, when solutions exist to resolve them. The choice is clear – and it’s certainly not the one between clean air and hot air.

-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign


  • The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) is organising a three-day orientation programme on Managing Urban Air Quality: Focus on Clean Vehicle Technology, Fuels and Mobility Management in New Delhi from August 6 - 8, 2014 for government officials from different cities of India. The objective of this forum is to promote good regulatory practices in air quality management, clean vehicle technology, fuels and management of in-use vehicle fleet and mobility management.

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