Tale of low hanging fruits

The World Bank has finally released its policy guidelines on mobile source pollution for regulators in the developing region. What is significant is the global mobilisation of science that was made to bear upon the views of the Bank on technology leapfrog in developing countries. In its original draft, the Bank had censured the idea of technology leapfrog and declared it as inordinately expensive and an inappropriate model for such countries. It said pushing tighter fuel and vehicle standards without petroleum sector reforms could be inefficient and expensive. Other methods, such as vehicle inspection and traffic measures, were more cost effective ways of curbing pollution.

The global clean air community weighed in to highlight the benefits of direct and aggressive technical controls at source to combat the air pollution challenge in developing countries. Experts highlighted how the benefits of bringing forward ultralow sulphur fuels and clean diesel technology far outweigh the costs. Clean fuels open up many options. Such steps are affordable and must be taken to address the public health crisis facing the region.

In its final report, the Bank modified its position to concede that the early push for ultralow sulphur fuels is possible in countries that have already moved to 500 ppm sulphur fuels. These countries may examine the cost effectiveness of moving to ultralow sulphur standards, taking into account maintenance capability and concomitant investments in the necessary emissions control technologies.

With the Bank’s policy guide beginning to mend its stance, we hope to see this change strengthened and reflected in all its commentaries on the region. It is disturbing to note that before the policy guide could even strike a balance, a distinct anti-leapfrog bias had begun to dominate the Bank’s writings and guidance for the region. It is especially troubling to read in the Bank’s literature (Feb. 2003) that leapfrogging technology makes sense where technological advances are driven by market demand, as in IT and telecommunications. But technological advances driven by the need to deal with such externalities as pollution do not inherently increase profitability or efficiency. Therefore, it is not a cost-effective solution, the Bank claims. So even within the integrated framework to reduce air pollution, technology was fated to limp along. Public health traded for profit!

What must this mean for us if this minimalist view on technology shapes the trajectory of change in our country? This quandary is best illustrated in a recent report of the Bank on understanding sources of PM2.5 in a few metro cities of India (March 2004). The report shows the contribution of diesel to total PM2.5 load can be as high as 61 per cent in Kolkata, 23 per cent in Delhi and 25 per cent in Mumbai during some seasons. Yet the study prescribes "the first step up the diesel technology ladder", or Euro II at best (levels these cities have already attained). Concurrently, vehicle inspection programmes, transport management and other indirect tools, such as urban planning and petroleum sector reforms, are advocated as the key PM2.5 control strategies.

A city like Kolkata, for instance, is reeling under suffocating levels of PM2.5 (the Bank’s own data shows winter peaks touching shocking heights of 350 micrograme per cum). Even greater horror: a recent study of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board shows that as much as 57.5 per cent of PM10 in the city’s air is less than 1.1 micron in size. For us it is no longer a simple case of poor cities saddled with an ageing fleet belching high carbon soot. The city is already in the deadly grip of tinier particles and rising NOx levels – a predicament we thought so far was the prerogative of the West. Can we still ignore aggressive technology measures to address the PM-NOx challenge? The city today has no hope of getting technology enabling fuels soon as the government has not considered it necessary. Natural gas is still a pipe dream.

So what must these cities do? Keep hoping that in the face of a rapid increase in pollution levels Euro II would take hold? Wait for the effect of institutional and market reforms to become evident in the distant future? Downplay the health risk posed by the toxic diesel particulates and focus on road dusts to control PM2.5?

If the Bank has now come halfway to agree that cities that have already reached 500 ppm levels should plan for ultra clean fuels, it must still make the guidance more explicit on this. Otherwise, their reading of cost effectiveness to mean that maximum benefits are possible only with a few basic steps can mislead developing countries to take inappropriate decisions on technology route today. The reform process in the petroleum sector and the current investments must be linked to stronger environmental standards.

While both technical and non-technical measures are important, it is too optimistic to expect that vehicle inspection and transport demand management will be easier to implement. The same report finds, to its own peril, that traffic management in Indian cities is also plagued with institutional failures. The political and institutional discipline required to get traffic management policy and good vehicle inspection and maintenance systems going can make advanced technology work too. As we have learnt from the CNG experience in Delhi, technology can be the flagship of rapid transition, forcing even institutional changes to facilitate newer technologies. All can happen together – although the portfolio of actions and timelines may vary across countries.

Much larger questions have emerged therefore, that concern the stewards of transition in Asia. There is an emerging consensus in the Asian region on the need for swift steps at a significant scale to allow rapid transition. The challenge lies in helping Asia sidestep the pollution peak even as it grows economically. We cannot be asked to go slow along the clean technology path on the grounds that Asian economies would be burdened with disproportionately large costs. What is being overlooked is not just the flip side of the economic growth – an explosion in pollution levels and environmental toxification - but also that the growing economy of the region will never be able to spend enough to clean up the poisons created in the process.

The sulphur debate represents the challenge of science communication. If science in the global arena is tailored to support slow action, this can easily be used to undermine local policy choices. Local environmental decisions in a country like India do not reflect the best scientific analyses; safeguards are inadequate to prevent science from being used to suit investment decisions. Uncertainties in science remain an alibi to keep investments away from strong action.

The magnitude and relative threat of adverse health effects of air pollution is constantly negotiated in order to influence policy choices and to shift focus. Risk assessments go straight through the gaping holes in local data and borrowed assumptions, while the problem remains grossly underestimated. The region has not even understood the implication of its unique features in enhancing health impacts of air pollution – urban poverty, extremely high levels and the deadly mixture of pollutants. As these still remain quite beyond the reach of science, it is only leapfrogging that will qualify as our no-regret policy.

-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign

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