India not on course for clean air target

Published: Friday 15 June 2007

India not on course for clean air target

-- (Credit: SHYAMAL)Diesel cars are expected to corner 50 per cent of the Indian car market by 2010. 2010 is also the Indian government's target year for putting into place European emission standards. The target was set by the auto fuel policy of 2002. It appears to be an unlikely one with diesel exhaust being incriminated for a variety of diseases ranging from cancer to adverse birth effects. And the government hasn't shown much alacrity in mending matters. In fact, a Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas (mopng) spokesperson admitted, "There could be some slippages in meeting schedules."

Retrofitting emission control devices in diesel cars is amongst the solutions touted by various agencies. The us Environmental Protection Agency recently announced retrofitment technology demonstration projects in Pune. The agency's South Asia Program Director Ted MacDonald said, "Our objective is to get a better understanding of the options that exist". However, these options depend on fuel quality. In 2005, Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (teri) presented the government with a study of retrofitment technologies. Ranjan Bose, co-author of the study told Down To Earth: "Retrofitment of emission control devices or new engines in old engines can help reduce pollution at relatively low costs." Bose, however, was categorical that there are prerequisites, one crucially being the quality of the fuel. So, whilst the government may be looking into retrofitting projects to put the latest oxidation catalyst in buses and trucks, when combined with current diesel, the devices are virtually ineffective.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (icct) states that the diesel particulate filter can achieve 95 per cent efficiency in particulate emissions control if used with fuel that has a sulphur content of 3 parts per million (ppm). This efficiency drops to zero if 150 ppm sulphur fuel is used, and particulate emissions may double with 350 ppm sulphur fuels. icct has called sulphur the "lead of the new century" warning governments that sulphur impedes the introduction of new emission control technologies. This dirty diesel seems to be India's stumbling block to leapfrogging to cleaner air.
Government and refineries India imports over 70 per cent of its crude oil, often this is heavy crude with a higher sulphur content. The fuel is imported primarily because it comes cheap. The crude oil is refined and sold internally, and also exported. Over half the Indian refineries are government owned. As Lydia Powel, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (orf), an energy policy advisory group, says, "Many of these exist merely to provide jobs. They are away from the markets and are too expensive to run."

Some of the refineries are better placed, both technologically, and financially. But since the deadline for meeting European emission standards is a few years away, experts fear that there is a distinct possibility that these refineries will export their produce. According to former joint secretary of mopng, Sunjoy Joshi, who is now with orf, "There is already a market for fuel that meets European standards, Euro 4/5, elsewhere. So refineries in the country will sell it there until India catches up." And so as Powell put, "The country will get the dirty leftovers." This is the crux of the problem, yet as an mopng official admitted, "This is not a priority for the government."

Diesel prices are artificially set by the government and therefore do not fluctuate according to the international market. Such subsidies are loss-making and the ministry admits currently they aren't sustainable. As refinery losses increase, the government is digging the hole deeper offering bonds to keep the production going. At some point there must be a policy change.

"The price must eventually be passed onto the consumer," a spokesperson of mopng told Down To Earth. However, this move is fraught with political extenuations. "It would take a very brave politician to phase out the subsidies on diesel," the spokesperson said.

With the growing demand for diesel cars fuelled by the subsidised lower cost of diesel compared to petrol, the adverse health effects of diesel exhaust are surely to multiply. India cannot afford to expand its diesel fleet without improving fuel quality.

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