There are some contests that one would prefer not to do well in. Unfortunately, India has been doing deplorably well lately in such a lamentable competition: the race for the foulest, most dangerous urban air on earth.
A reminder of its unhappy success came again in the recent furore over news reports that Delhi’s air quality might be even worse than Beijing’s, the international poster child for air pollution.
Amid the analyses of local meteorological conditions and pollutant concentrations, what stood out was the contrast between the reactions of policymakers from these megacities. Even as Indian authorities took a defensive stance, Beijing’s mayor Wang Anshun was urging for an “all-out” effort to reduce air pollution.
In fact, Beijing is leading the way in China towards reducing vehicular air pollution. Starting in February 2013, Beijing has transitioned to ultra-low sulfur fuels and Euro V standards for particulates, nitrogen oxides, and other harmful compounds, and has proposed adoption of even more stringent Euro VI emission norms by 2016. By contrast, the amount of sulfur in Delhi’s fuel, at 50 parts per million, is five times what is now permitted in Beijing, and most of Delhi’s commercial vehicles only meet Bharat Stage (BS) III emission standards, two regulatory generations behind Euro V.
Until 2008, clean fuel and vehicle emission standards in Beijing and Delhi were advancing at a similar pace. Since then Beijing has accelerated efforts to mitigate vehicular air pollution, while Delhi has not. Other Indian cities straggle even further behind. Why?
The answer lies in part in the delay in adopting a successor to the 2003 Auto Fuel Policy, which established a roadmap for implementing progressively tighter fuel quality and vehicle emission standards by 2010. As a result of these standards, vehicular particulate matter emissions — the most harmful pollutant in terms of human health — have fallen by about 20%. The emission reductions achieved saved almost 6,500 lives in 2010 alone. The cumulative economic benefits stemming from premature deaths averted between 2003 and 2010 thanks to that single policy add up to about `1,50,000 crore, fully repaying the investments it necessitated.
But the good news stops there, because the gains of the last decade will have eroded before the end of this one. Vehicle sales in India are rising fast, last year’s slowdown notwithstanding, with rapid growth projected to continue for at least two more decades. If nothing is done to dramatically tighten standards, then over the next 15 years vehicular particulate matter emissions will double, and ‘appallingly’ will no longer suffice to describe the air quality in Delhi and other Indian cities.
It need not happen this way. Experience in countries with mature vehicle markets shows that even large national vehicle fleets do not necessarily entail terrible air quality — if stringent standards are established and enforced. India can drop out of the most-unbreathable-air contest by adopting world-class vehicle emission and fuel quality standards. In practical terms, that means mandating ultra-low sulfur fuels nationwide by 2017 and implementing BS VI vehicle emission standards nationwide by 2019.
Whether Delhi is more or less polluted than Beijing, the fact remains that much more could be done to reduce air pollution in Delhi and other cities. Adopting a new auto fuel policy roadmap should be among the first priorities. Otherwise, it cannot be long before Delhi’s dubious supremacy is no longer a matter of debate.
Anup Bandivadekar is Program Director, the Passenger Vehicles, at the International Council on Clean Transportation
The views expressed by the author are personal