Ban diesel

There is no such thing as safe diesel technology as of now. The only option, therefore, is to ban the manufacture of private diesel vehicles and convert buses to operate on natural gas

By Mario
Published: Monday 31 May 1999

T he judges were angry. Very angry. They had reason to be. It is a well-known fact that pollution has already risen dramatically in the last two decades in India. To make matters worse, the automobile fleet was also growing by leaps and bounds. If automobiles with poor engine technology are allowed to hit the road, they will only contribute to air pollution. In a nutshell, the sullied air in the capital will become even worse.

The judges therefore decided to crackdown. They put a limit on the number of cars that could be sold in the National Capital Region. They also imposed a quality control on the engines of the cars that can be sold in the region.

Car manufacturers are supposed to meet certain emission standards. It has always been an issue with environmentalists that car owners are supposed to maintain engine quality under existing laws. They have to do this by going in for end-of-the-pipeline measures. This means they have to queue up for a 'pollution under control' certificate to drive their vehicle in the country.

Environmentalists have always questioned the principles behind issuing these certificates. This procedure places an unwanted burden upon the consumer of a product while the manufacturer goes scot free. But now that the Supreme Court judges have decided to crackdown on the automobile industry, manufacturers will be forced to produce engines of a certain quality. This in itself is a major change for the better. In fact a new beginning.

The judges have brought forward Euro ii norms by five years to April 1, 2000. All car manufacturers wanting to sell their vehicles in the National Capital Region will have to meet these norms. This means that inferior engines cannot be sold at all. The manufacturers are now under pressure to produce better engines. The process will benefit the entire country but only as far as petrol engines go. For diesel engines the story is different (See Analysis: Fatal attraction, pg 34).

The court order came in response to the recommendations of the Environment Protection (prevention and control) Authority. A group of environmentalists had raised the issue of a rapid dieselisation of the Indian automobile fleet. Diesel, researchers say, is dangerous for health. Diesel vehicles emit particles in their exhaust which have a diametre lesser than 10 microns. One micron is one-millionth of a millimetre. It is very easily inhaled. Once it enters the lungs it lodges there and kills the cell it attaches itself to. Any amount of these particles in the air are dangerous for health. Therefore, there is no such thing as a safe limit for them.

The environmentalists had protested that the government's policy of keeping diesel low-priced was promoting a rapid dieselisation of the private automobile fleet even as public transport was steering from diesel and switching to compressed natural gas as an alternative.

Environmentalists had been alarmed by a new trend emerging in the automobile industry. So far diesel car manufacturers had manufactured luxury cars beyond the reach of the common person. All of a sudden, they were targetting the small car market segment. The common person's car would, therefore, be a diesel car. This would mean a sudden and dramatic jump in the number of diesel vehicles on the road. This would also mean a sudden and dramatic jump not only in the level of air pollution, but also in the nature of air pollution from vehicles. Unlike petrol, diesel leads to the emission of tiny particles. These would go up dramatically as well. The judges had a right to be angry and impose a limit on the number of diesel cars

The judges have also slapped curbs on petrol cars. Environmentalists hail it as a bonus which they got in response to their anti-diesel campaign. But the court order has failed to address certain issues.

The order has sought to put a limit on the number of cars being sold in the National Capital Region by putting a ceiling on the number of cars that will be registered by the Road Transport Authority. But what is desperately needed is a national agenda. There is no way the authorities in Delhi can stop anyone from buying a diesel car and getting it registered in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan or Haryana and then driven in Delhi. The only way to do this would be to impose a realistic ban on the number of cars being registered in India as a whole. A countrywide policy is, therefore, the need of the hour.

Diesel vehicles were once bought because they were status symbols. They were symbols of the prosperity of their owners and their purchasing power. They were always cheap to run as compared to big and expensive petrol vehicles. They were also a rare sight. Today in India they are becoming common because of their low price and low running costs. If the authorities do not raise the price of diesel they should employ fiscal tools to raise the price of the vehicles themselves. It will help meet a national objective: that of health and clean air for all. And as a woody grass, bamboo has management requirements and growth rates more familiar to many farmers than those of trees.

Many Asian countries, such as India, Bangladesh, China and Indonesia, rely heavily on bamboo largely for use in pulp and paper, furniture and so on, yet it has been overlooked as a commercial crop in the western hemisphere. Experimental plantations established in the 1950s and 1960s by the us department of agriculture ( usda ) proved that the fast growth and yield potential of several bamboo species exceeded the traditional forest products in the southern us. The usda, however, concluded that the unusual reproductive cycle of bamboo limited the availability of seed for plantation development. Many bamboo species flower once in 60 years. When they have flowered and produced seeds, the plants then die. The site does not become productive again until the seeds have germinated.

However, this is not the whole story. The intriguing phenomena of gregarious flowering is a feature of many bamboo species. Somehow, each individual of a particular species flowers and dies at the same time worldwide, in spite of the fact that they can be separated by continents or the fact that the flowering cycle could be decades long and occuring at irregular intervals. The difficulties associated with the seed shortage and gregarious flowering can be overcome by selecting a species that does not exhibit gregarious flowering and by using vegitative propagation to create the planting stock. The rhizome transplant method was found to be both expensive and unreliable

The term bamboo encompasses over 1200 different species. These are mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions, but also extend to temperate regions. They are native to all continents, with the exception of Europe (though research suggests that they would grow well, particularly in the Mediterranean regions) and are present in a great diversity of size and shapes. The areas with the greatest diversity are Asia and and South America. Tropical species can produce poles, or culms, up to 20 metres high, and can have a diametre of more than 15 centimetres.

Not all bamboo species have this height, but most grow vigorously. Once the culms have reached their maximum height, sometimes in as short a period as eight weeks, it does not increase in height or girth in the later years, hence the bulk of biomass is produced in this short and explosive period of growth. This growth is seasonal and is closely linked to water availability. Irrigated bamboo is seldom found, nor does it seem necessary when yields of more than 20 dry tonnes per hectare can be achieved with relatively little effort and minimal input. The plants tend to prefer light, sandy soil with low salt content.

Yields are the key to the success of energy farming and they are inseparably related to management. It is then that the potential of bamboo to outperform other plants starts to emerge. Though it was believed that felling of bamboo stands was causing severe damage, tests have shown that felling of culms leads to vigorous regrowth, which means an increase in the amount of biomass the next year. What is more is that it helps avoid some of the diseases, to which neglected stands of bamboo are prone. Tests in India have shown that application of fertiliser leads to a three-fold increase in the biomass yield. On this basis, yields of 80 dry tonnes per hectare per year, for example, will greatly exceed the upper accepted yields of around 20 dry tonnes per hectare per year for commercial eucalyptus plantations. Though more work is needed in these areas, there is more data to justify the enthusiasm for bamboo as a biomass producer than is commonly realised.

How well does the bamboo burn? Early signs suggest that it burns almost as well as wood. While the density of woody biomass varies considerably, the calorific value per kilogramme is fairly similar. A lower moisture content at harvest time gives an energy 'premium'. The main advantages of using bamboo for energy farming are its superior growth rates, the shortness of the rotation and the ease with which it can be cultivated and regenerated if the right training is done.

The only significant disadvantage is that most bamboo species die after flowering. Unless steps are taken to diversify the source of planting material, this flowering can destroy plantations as has happened in Thailand recently. Cattle also like to eat bamboo and if it is being grown for fuel, care must be taken to fence the area.

The challenge is to establish bamboo plantations on a large enough scale to provide a constant and sustainable supply of power generation. A new scheme of using bamboo plantations for energy generation is now being considered in Honduras. Since much of the bamboo is produced from branches and leaves, transport without some initial processing on site can result in heavy costs. This can be overcome by chipping on the site and producing a material that can be fed straight into the boiler. As chipping will be required before feeding to the boiler anyway, it is not an extra operation as it merely shifts the chipping from power station to field. Any disadvantages from using a number of small mobile chippers compared to a larger fixed chipper will be more than compensated for by improved transport costs. Growing bamboo and implementing new power generation technology could provide much-needed jobs and clean, renewable energy.

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