Only at the level of Euro VI norms can India effectively and nearly close the gap between diesel and petrol emissions, says one of India’s top vehicle fuel pollution analysts. India is in the grip of massive dieselization, while the WHO has reclassified diesel emissions as a group 1 carcinogen for its strong link with lung cancer

Currently diesel cars emit 5-7 times more particulate matter and three times more nitrogen oxides than petrol cars in India raising serious health concerns. (Image by Wayan Vota)

Currently diesel cars emit 5-7 times more particulate matter and three times more nitrogen oxides than petrol cars in India raising serious health concerns. (Image by Wayan Vota)

The much-awaited and delayed proposal on emissions standards roadmap for vehicles and fuel quality in India has been released. The committee appointed by the last government under the chairmanship of Saumitra Chaudhury, former Planning Commission member, finalized the report just when the government changed. This legacy proposal needs immediate scrutiny for future action. The new government needs to calibrate its effectiveness to deliver on public health goals.

The new proposal schedules the timeline for introduction of successive stages of European standards that India follows for vehicles and fuels. It has asked for Euro IV or Bharat Stage IV standard nation-wide by 2017, Euro V by 2021 and Euro VI by 2024. Thus, the automobile industry will meet Euro VI norms as late as 2024 though the refineries will do a better job of providing the requisite fuel with 10 ppm sulphur by 2020. If the vehicle industry is not pushed, India will fall far behind Europe and several other major vehicle producing regions of the world. This requires urgent intervention to align the introduction of 10 ppm sulphur fuel with Euro VI standards for vehicles in 2020-21 to mitigate toxic pollution from vehicles.

When the Mashelkar Committee had introduced the first roadmap in 2003, it had reduced the time lag with Europe to five years for a few cities with Euro IV norms and to 10 years for the country that had introduced Euro III in 2010. The new proposal ironically widens the lag further when motorization is exploding. Due to inordinate delay in taking a decision about the second roadmap, the time lag has increased to 9-14 years. This will block rapid absorption of advanced emissions control systems needed to clean up the air and protect public health. The roadmap must enable India to leapfrog to Euro VI emissions standards by 2020-21.

The new proposal has however acknowledged that emissions regulations cannot continue to follow the practice of keeping emissions standards tighter for a few cities and lax for the rest of the country. It has – and rightly so – proposed uniform norms across the country. Public policy cannot create two classes of citizens giving higher level of public health protection to one over the other.

Uncertain roadmap

There is no certainty that what has been proposed will be improved or implemented as planned. The proposal comes with a rider that can compromise the timeline and further delay matters. A review has been proposed in 2019 to assess once again the feasibility of introducing Euro VI norms in 2024. Given the fact that the automobile industry has negotiated hard to keep Euro VI outside the ambit of the roadmap and beyond 2025, this is very worrying.

At the same time the target for the refineries to produce 10 ppm sulphur fuel nation-wide by 2020 has come with an additional condition of fiscal support. As the cost of refinery improvement to produce clean fuel to enable introduction of advanced emissions control technologies in vehicles will be high – estimated to be nearly Rs 80,000 crore, it is proposed to impose a small cess on each litre of petrol and diesel sold to mop up additional revenue to meet the refinery costs. There is also a proposal to bring the price of Euro III at par with that of Euro IV fuel sold currently, and the additional revenue from the increased price of Euro III fuel to be spent on improving refineries.

This fiscal strategy is important to break the refinery impasse as the sheer burden of subsidy and under recoveries in the sector has made investments very difficult. An innovative fiscal strategy is needed to stimulate investment in the public sector refineries to fast track production of cleaner fuels to help meet the tighter standards. If clean fuel is prioritized, the refineries will also rationalize their investments in refinery improvement. It is more cost effective to design and implement the complete system of fuel and vehicles in one step rather than two.

Fiscal action needed

This therefore sets the agenda for the new finance minister who is finalizing the budget for 2014-15. If this fiscal strategy is ignored now, this can put on hold the transition to clean fuel and clean vehicles for a considerably long time, derailing the entire process at a serious public health cost to the country.

The new government will have to extend fiscal support to the refinery proposal to produce 10 ppm sulphur fuel by 2020-21 nation-wide and leverage that move to modify the proposal to leapfrog the vehicle standards to Euro VI in 2020-21 as well. This is needed to protect public health effectively.

India has a much bigger advantage in influencing the future stock of vehicles with tighter emissions standards. All available data from various surveys show that the average age of Indian vehicles are relatively new – averaging 5-7 years. Only the commercial truck and bus sectors still have older stock. But the future vehicle numbers will increase several times more than the existing or the legacy stock. There is much bigger benefit in improving the future stock with clean emissions standards to prevent pollution aftermath in cities.

Moreover, only at the level of Euro VI norms can India effectively and nearly close the gap between diesel and petrol emissions. This is a unique concern in India, which is in the grip of massive dieselization. The WHO has reclassified diesel emissions as group 1 carcinogen, the same group as tobacco, for its strong link with lung cancer. According to this panel report, if petrol and diesel consumption is added, then the share of diesel consumption in India is as high as 81%, highest among other regions of the world. Already nearly half of cars sold are on diesel and they use more diesel than agriculture or power generation sets. With increased share of road based freight, diesel use will grow more. Truck movement through cities is also aggravating the public health crisis.

The new roadmap will have to address the public health concern over diesel emissions. At the current level of technology diesel cars are allowed to emit more particulate and nitrogen oxides, a major concern in urban India – five to seven times more particulate and three times more nitrogen oxides – than petrol cars.  Several developing countries have discouraged diesel cars.  In Brazil diesel cars are not allowed because of the policy to keep taxes lower on diesel. In China, taxes do not differentiate between petrol and diesel fuel, but diesel cars are less than one per cent of all cars in China. Beijing does not allow diesel cars as a pollution control measure since 2003. Sri Lanka has imposed several times higher duties on diesel cars compared to petrol cars and has reduced diesel car sales. Even in India several official committees have asked for special and additional taxes on diesel cars to neutralise the incentive of cheaper diesel fuel. An additional tax on diesel cars can bring more funds for refinery upgrade.

Graph: Why we need to leapfrog to Euro VI?

Petrol and diesel emissions close gap

Note: PM emissions from petrol vehicles are so negligible that these are not regulated in petrol vehicles. (Source:  Based on data available in www.dieselnet.com)

Note: PM emissions from petrol vehicles are so negligible that these are not regulated in petrol vehicles. (Source: Based on data available in www.dieselnet.com)

Link roadmap to public health goals

The Auto Fuel Policy committee had started off on a weak wicket as public health and air quality targets were not included in its terms of reference. In due course, public pressure and engagement brought public health discussion into the deliberations.

The new budget will have to integrate public health costs and benefits to decide the stringency of the roadmap. Several studies have now shown that the benefits of pollution mitigation outweigh the cost of mitigation. A World Bank study of 2013 has shown that health damages associated with particulate matter cost three per cent of GDP, but coarse particulate matter (called PM10) mitigation will cost much less than one per cent of GDP. Globally, other governments have adopted the practice of assessing cost and benefits to decide the stringency of policy action. India has to move out of its age old conservative fiscal approaches to deliver on a public good.

The new government will have to acknowledge that the effect of breathing toxic air are now associated with a range of health outcomes that include respiratory problems, cancer, eye related symptoms, effect on foetus, hypertension, diabetes and brain development in children, among others. Vehicular emissions contribute significantly to human exposure.

Indian lungs cannot tolerate any more of this toxic onslaught. The new government needs to respond to the growing demand for a leapfrog strategy for public health protection. Another high profile committee – National Transport Development Policy Committee – that has given recommendations for transport infrastructure has also recommended leapfrogging to Euro VI standards by 2020-21.

India cannot afford to motorise and compromise public health without linking the new investment in the automobile sector to the best available clean emissions technology.

Anumita Roychowdhury is the Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, India; also in charge of policy advocacy programme on clean air, public health security and sustainable mobility.

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