Alarm over air pollution and public health, languishing vehicle technology, and mobility crisis in South Asian cities

Ongoing action must gather momentum

  • New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and TVE Asia Pacific jointly organise a media briefing in Colombo on the Challenges of Air Quality and Mobility Management in South Asian Cities 

  • Colombo, like Delhi, facing a serious air pollution problem – toxic risk from rapidly growing numbers of vehicles, many of which run on diesel

  • These cities have the chance to grow differently and avert the crisis by encouraging   bus use, non-motorised transport and walking. Must not encourage pro-car policies and lax emissions standards roadmap

  • Motorisation also threatening to undermine energy security in the region

  • Both Colombo and Delhi need second generation action -- leapfrog in vehicle technology and fuel quality, fuel economy regulations, scaling up of public transport, integrated multi-modal transport options, car restraints and walking

  • Any further delay can worsen air pollution and mobility crisis in the region

Colombo, April 27, 2011: Most cities in South Asia are struggling to control the growing population of vehicles on their roads, large numbers of which are driven on polluting diesel. Maintaining urban air quality and protecting their sustainable urban commuting practices are, thus, some of the toughest challenges facing these cities.

Delhi, while having made some significant strides in meeting air quality challenges, has slipped and made terrible mistakes as well. In Colombo, vehicles are responsible for 60 per cent of the air pollution load. But Colombo is more fortunate than Delhi -- it has the advantage of the cleansing effect of the sea breeze and also has its strength in high usage of sustainable public transport. The city has the opportunity to build on this advantage and strength. It can, in fact, learn from Delhi’s experience and initiate preventive policies quickly – leapfrog to clean vehicle technology and fuels as well as strengthen sustainable mobility practices – bus, walking and cycling.

This conclusion emerged out of a Country Media Briefing conducted here today by the New Delhi-based research and advocacy body, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The briefing’s focus was the challenge of urban air quality and mobility in South Asian cities, and experts from CSE and Colombo addressed the assembled media persons. CSE organised this briefing with the active support of and assistance from Colombo-based TVE Asia Pacific.

CSE, one of India’s leading environmental think-tanks, has been in the forefront in combating air pollution in Delhi. In the mid 1990s, its ‘Right to Clean Air’ campaign had kicked off a sequence of events which resulted in India’s capital getting one of the largest CNG-run public transport service in the world. Air quality registered a visible improvement following this. But recent data indicates Delhi is fast losing out on the gains from those transport reforms, largely due to its spiraling numbers of private, especially diesel-run, vehicles.

Today’s briefing in Colombo was the part of the series of media meetings that CSE is planning across the South Asian region. These meetings will focus on environment and development issues of country-specific and local relevance and interest, said CSE’s media team which organised this event.

Lag in vehicle technology and fuel quality adding to public health crisis in urban South Asia

  • Technology lag: The region is suffering from serious technology lag and is far behind the global clean emissions benchmark. Colombo has initiated Euro I/Euro II technology that is 20 years behind Europe. India has a combination of Euro III/Euro IV, which is not enough. The region can beat its pollution problem if new vehicles emit as little as possible and technology improves as quickly as possible.

  • Deadly dieselisation: Diesel vehicle fleets are expanding at a maniacal pace. This has serious public health implications. In India, diesel cars are already 30 per cent of the new car sales, while cars have become the second highest users of diesel. In Sri Lanka, diesel vehicles make up 45 per cent of the total fleet. Estimates show that the transport sector uses up more than 90 per cent of the country’s diesel fuel. The policy to under-tax diesel and maintain a wide gap with petrol prices is largely responsible for this trend. Also, a distorted import policy is aiding dieselisation in Sri Lanka: the age limit for imported petrol cars is three years, while that for diesel vehicles is five years. The overall effective tax on diesel vehicles is also lower.

There are serious health concerns over increased use of high sulphur poor quality diesel. A diesel car can emit seven times more air toxics than petrol cars. Agencies like the International Agency for Research of Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have all classified diesel emissions as carcinogenic. The evidence from India shows that Euro III diesel cars that are sold across the country emit 7.5 times more toxic particulate matter and 3-5 times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than comparable petrol cars.

Studies in Sri Lanka have attributed Rs 22-17 billion to health damage costs owing to auto diesel emissions in Colombo. Diesel vehicles are responsible for 96-89 per cent of SO2 and PM10 from the transportation sector.

Governments in South Asia earn much less from excise on diesel used by cars, compared to petrol. While revenue losses per litre of diesel will be compounded with the increase in diesel car sales, diesel car owners will be laughing their way to the car shworooms, given lower diesel prices. Said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director-research and advocacy, CSE: “This perverse subsidy to the rich comes at an enormous cost to public health.”

In countries like Brazil, diesel cars are actively discouraged because of the policy to keep taxes lower on diesel. In Denmark, diesel cars are taxed higher to offset the lower prices of diesel fuel. In China, taxes do not differentiate between petrol and diesel.

Diesel cars may emit less carbon dioxide compared to their petrol counterparts as they are more fuel-efficient. But even this benefit is at risk of being negated as diesel fuel has more carbon content than petrol. If more diesel fuel is burnt, as is likely given its cheaper prices and rising number of cars run on it, heat-trapping carbon emissions will increase. Moreover, even the carbon soot from diesel vehicles is now known to be contributing to global warming.

“The region needs to fast track its transition to meeting Euro V and VI emissions standards. Sri Lanka will need to be on schedule to meet the Euro IV standards in 2012 and then quickly move to Euro V/VI. India must move quickly to Euro VI as well,” said Roychowdhury.
Mobility crisis hits the region
CSE’s assessment shows that the biggest challenge that confronts Colombo and Delhi and their respective countries is the rapidly increasing vehicle numbers that threatens to undo all the small incremental gains. Growing congestion is crippling the cities. 

  • Sri Lanka’s motor vehicle fleet has doubled in one decade (1991 to 2000). Studies have shown that the country incurs a massive financial and human-hour loss due to traffic congestion. In Greater Colombo, this loss was as high as Rs 32 billion per annum in 2009. Sri Lanka is losing 1.5 per cent of its GDP due to traffic congestion, with traffic flows increasing at around 10 per cent per year. Peak hour journey speeds in Colombo are steadily declining.

  • Colombo must not repeat Delhi’s mistakes. Delhi has not been able to solve its problem of pollution and congestion by building more roads and flyovers for cars. The city has more than 21 per cent of its geographical area under road space, yet its roads are totally gridlocked. Peak hour traffic has slumped to below 15 km/hour. Cars and two-wheelers in Delhi occupy 90 per cent of the road space but meet less than 20 per cent of the travel demand. More roads are, therefore, not the answer.

  • First generation action in Delhi and Colombo has delivered, but not enough

  • Colombo has already initiated its first generation action to clean up its air. This includes mandatory annual vehicle emission testing programme launched in 2008, import ban on two-stroke engines; conversion of three-wheelers to LPG/electric; construction of refinery that can produce Euro IV diesel by 2012; and planned introduction of Euro IV in 2012. This has led to a drop in PM10 levels in Colombo.

  • Delhi’s first generation action has included improvements in emissions standards, implementation of CNG programme, strengthening of the in-use vehicle programme, relocation of industries, etc. Initially these interventions helped to stabilise the problem and save more than 3,500 premature deaths a year. But a phenomenal increase in vehicle numbers has negated these gains.

Both Colombo and Delhi now face the dilemma of mega cities: the challenge of initiating second generation action.

Colombo can avert the mobility and pollution crisis

Both Colombo and Delhi need urgent policies to protect and build their strength. The second generation reforms will need tough action.

• CSE’s assessment has brought out the strengths that Colombo has: for instance, public transport buses are less than 10 per cent of the vehicles per km, but they carry 60 per cent of the passengers per km. This means they use much less road space, but meet a significant share of the travel need of the city. On the other hand, private vehicles – cars and two-wheelers – make up 60 per cent of the total vehicles per km, occupy more road space, but carry just about 25 per cent of passengers per km. With improvements in its public transport, Colombo can easily make the transition to the low polluting and low carbon mobility paradigm that the world is trying to achieve today to be more sustainable. Colombo must recognise and build on this strength.

But the city may end up making the same mistakes that Delhi has made. The new transportation projects in Colombo are dominated by flyovers and roads. Colombo urgently needs a public transport strategy. A study carried out by the Asian Development Bank has shown that an increase in bus share from 76 to 80 per cent can save 104,720 tonne of oil equivalent. It would mean 5 per cent reduction in total number of vehicles and freeing up of road space equivalent to removing 62,152 cars.

• Learn from Delhi. Though Delhi still has a high usage of bus, walk and non-motorised trips, car-centric policies are steadily marginalising and edging out these low or non-polluting modes. Within one decade, bus ridership in Delhi has dropped from 60 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent now.

More roads are not the answer. Colombo still has the chance to plan its future growth differently and avoid the path of pollution, congestion and energy guzzling. Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking. Not cars.

Control fuel guzzling
Rapid motorisation can threaten energy security in the region. Not only are car numbers increasing in the cities of South Asia, the markets are also shifting steadily towards bigger cars. In the Indian car market, big cars form 36 per cent of the new car sales; in Colombo, the big car sector is predominantly aided by the import of used cars and cheap diesel. This can seriously threaten energy security. Sri Lanka imports 85 per cent of its energy demand. CO2 emissions from the transport sector dominate the CO2 inventory in the country at 45 per cent.

Global studies show that even a 10 per cent increase in large vehicle sales can result in a 2 per cent deterioration in fleet fuel economy. Our cities are bearing huge costs on account of luxury consumption of fuel. They need fuel efficiency measures and standards to conserve fuel in the transportation sector and strengthen energy security.

The way ahead
The first generation action from Colombo and Delhi shows that it can make a difference. But, says Roychowdhury, it is time to set new terms of action. Soft options have all been exhausted in South Asia.

More aggressive decisions -- reducing personal vehicle usage, upgrading public transport, walking and cycling, leapfrogging vehicle technology and fuel quality, and getting clean diesel are the key options left. Says Roychowdhury: “Let us quickly move to cleaner benchmarks for vehicle technology and fuel quality, especially diesel, and plan cities for people, not vehicles.”

Some of the priority measures that were suggested in today’s meeting included:

  • Setting emissions standards roadmap for vehicle technology and fuel quality and a timeline for the introduction of Euro V/VI emissions standards. .

  • Strengthening the LPG and electric vehicle programme to leapfrog to cleaner emissions; setting stringent inspection and safety regulations for LPG vehicles.

  • Scaling up and accelerating bus transport reforms; integrating public transport and non-motorised transport.

  • Building pedestrian infrastructure and designing pedestrian guidelines for approval of road projects and enhancement of the existing ones.

  • Introducing a parking policy to reduce congestion.

  • Strengthening emissions checks on in-use vehicles.

  • Using tax measures to discourage personal vehicle usage and inefficient use of fuels.

  • Introducing energy saving regulations and fuel economy regulations for vehicles.

  • Enforcing clean air standards.


For details, please contact Souparno Banerjee on or call him on +94 77963 5175 (Colombo Number) or +91 99108 64339 (New Delhi Number)