Polluting politics

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 11 June 2015

Disinformation and bad politics seem to go hand in hand. Now that the Delhi government is showing that it is determined to fight growing air pollution, a desperate effort seems to be on to try and confuse the issue in the hope that action against polluters can be delayed, if not derailed. The Tata Energy Research Institute ( teri ) has suddenly woken up to say that the government's move to ban the registration of all commercial vehicles, except those running on compressed natural gas ( cng ), will promote global warming. teri scientists seem to have suddenly pulled this out of their hat, much like a magician conjuring up a rabbit.

Of course, cng being a gas with a high methane content is known to have greenhouse gas potential. This is well-known and well-considered in public policy. This is not to say that diesel, for which teri obviously seems to be lobbying, does not lead to global warming. In fact, there is increasing evidence to show that diesel contributes in an equal measure to global warming. It was a preferred fuel because of the alleged high efficiency of diesel engines but the price differential and the lower costs of running diesel cars has led to increasing usage and negates any advantage.

But the issue that teri scientists seemed to have missed completely is that diesel engines emit high quantities of particulate matter which are extremely small and highly carcinogenic. Particulate pollution is the most serious pollutant in Delhi. Pollution due to pm 10 particles -- particles with a diameter less than 10 microns -- reached an astonishing 820 microgrammes per cubic metre on some days in the city's ambient air. This is eight times higher than the national standard and possibly way above anything recorded in any other city in the world. Mexico City, which is widely considered as the most polluted in the world, has a smog alert system. The authorities inform citizens about the state of the air on a daily basis. If Delhi's particulate pollution levels are considered and Mexico City rules imposed, the city would have a pollution emergency every second day. In fact Delhi would have to close down for six months in the year to make the air good enough to breathe.

Therefore an action plan to control particulate pollution becomes vital. Curbs on diesel use become a must. Because of this, the Supreme Court in 1998 had ordered that all buses over eight years old should move to cng from April 1, 2000 and all buses should be running on cng by March 2001. The court is also hearing a case recommending a ban on private diesel cars in Delhi, as the spiralling growth of these cheaper-to-run-vehicles of the rich, has the potential to negate any clean up efforts by the public transport sector.

The Delhi government long criticised for delaying the implementation of these orders has finally decided to take a hard line. But no sooner does it clear the proposal to register only buses, taxis and autorickshaws that run on cng from April 1, 2000, it is hit on the head. The timing is amazing, simply because the decision to move public and commercial transport to cng had been taken almost two years ago. The Gas Authority of India Limited has been busy setting up the infrastructure to provide the city with cng and everyone else, from the Supreme Court downwards, has been pushing for the timely implementation of this crucial order.

The question now being asked is whether Delhi, which is suffering from severe local air pollution, should first take steps to deal with global pollution. This is absurd. It is important to note that India does not have commitments under the climate change convention to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not to say that it should have the right to pollute with impunity. Only that the convention clearly lays down that those who have endangered the world's climate should be the first to take action to reduce their emissions. We have seen precious little of this till date. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in late 1997, lays down commitments for the industrialised North to cut emissions but now the richest and most polluting nations are trying to buy their way out of the problem. They want to trade in cheap emission reductions from our part of the world instead of taking action to cut emissions at home.

Secondly, there is the issue of priorities. In the grossly climate-unfriendly country like the us , states like New York and California were faced with the choice of restricting diesel, that had less global warming potential, against rising concerns over local air pollution. They clearly stated that local health concerns had to take precedence over global concerns. As a result both these states have programmes to induct more and more cng buses. Why then should Delhi citizens be treated differently?

teri 's conjuring act is a part of the automobile lobby's sustained efforts to block the introduction of cng in Delhi. It is, therefore, not surprising that only a few months ago the director of teri was quoted in newspaper reports as arguing that burning of leaves by the poor and not automobiles, was the cause of air pollution in Delhi. Given that a tata company -- telco -- is leading the diesel brigade, should we call this connivance, or term it a coincidence?

-- Anil Agarwal

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