Vehicular technology and fuel quality: Why must India leapfrog?

Vehicles are a special problem as they emit in the breathing zone of people. A large number of studies are now available that show exposure to vehicle exhaust causes significant increase in respiratory symptoms and lung function impairment, cancer and plethora of other ailments.

Indian evidences have also begun to emerge. Congestion further aggravates emissions. Low average speeds due to traffic congestion increases the emissions due to the stop-and-go pattern of traffic flow in congested condition.

Leapfrog to clean vehicle technology and fuels and fuel efficient vehicles. Small gains are easily offset by the growing traffic volumes. Indian regulations instead of pushing the automobile industry to catch up with the global best standards, fall short of what the industry is capable of achieving. Public health goals cannot be met in cities if vehicles continue to meet poor emissions standards. Five to ten year lag in emissions standards and uncontrolled dieselization without clean diesel can further aggravate public health impacts. The current European standards allow diesel vehicles to emit several times more oxides of nitrogen than petrol vehicles and are lenient on particulate standards.

There is no roadmap yet that sets the milestones for uniform and tighter emissions standards for the entire country. Yet the Auto Mission Plan is proposing to make India the auto hub without linking the new investments with the effective roadmap.

The enabling fuels are needed to speed up the technology roadmap. Without the ultra-low sulphur fuels India — like many other Asian countries — cannot take the advantage of advanced emissions control technologies that can achieve significantly low emissions at reasonable costs. India — where more than half of the existing refinery capacities have been created in the recent years — has not been driven by an aggressive roadmap. The longer India delays addressing these issues, the longer its citizens will suffer the adverse consequences of the toxic pollution.

The solution is to leapfrog. Global experience demonstrates that it is cheaper to leapfrog and fiscal solutions exist to mitigate the costs of technology transformation.

Or take alternative route. Gaseous fuels — natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — have opened up opportunities in India to sidestep conventional and polluting technologies of diesel and petrol. Both natural gas and LPG have the potential to cut particulate emissions from vehicles to negligible levels.  Nearly 80 cities in India can have CNG by 2012. Implement gaseous fuels programmes with the effective fiscal support and incentives, infrastructure for their maintenance and enforcement of safety regulations to maximise the emissions gains from these programmes.