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Airpocalypse Now: Vehicular pollution soars to worrying levels

Vehicular pollution is a global public health hazard. But there are measures we can take to put the brakes on its effects, writes Kunal Bose.

ht view Updated: Nov 10, 2014 02:20 IST

The Global Burden of Disease report — a collaborative venture of the World Health Organization, Harvard, John Hopkins university and other institutions — has pronounced that Asian cities have become the epicentre of life threatening air pollution, caused primarily by minute particles of diesel soot and gas emissions by all types of vehicles.

This should be a wake-up call for India. In spite of the European Commission introducing many measures to control air pollution, it is still the cause of 400,000 premature deaths in the continent each year. China, which claims to be trying hard to rid itself of polluting industrial units, loses around 500,000 lives each year to the ‘airpocalypse,’ a new coinage for killer air pollution.

Already the world’s biggest auto market, more than 20 million new cars hit the road last year further damaging the ambient air quality of Chinese cities. Environmentalists agree that the explosion in car use in China and India is largely responsible for Asia having an alarming 65% share of global deaths caused by air pollution.

India, which is excruciatingly slow in enforcing fuel efficiency standards and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission norms for vehicles, has seen a rapid rise in air pollution-related mortality. Doctors are alarmed by growing incidence of respiratory diseases and sudden cardiac deaths due to breathing of poisonous air. The poor are no doubt more vulnerable but the rich are not spared the ill effects of degraded air quality.

The German consulting firm Roland Berger Strategy has forecast that Indian car demand will have a compound annual growth of 12% to 5 million units by 2020. But a rapidly growing car population will put the government under increasing pressure to staunch pollution by vehicle emissions. As thousands are hospitalised and die every year by inhaling toxic air, India is burdened with high medical bills and productivity losses running into billions of dollars.

Globally, the two major sources of air pollution are coal-fired power plants and automobiles. Take the US, the world’s largest per capita user of petroleum based liquid fuel, where the transportation sector is the second largest emitter of toxic gases closely behind power complexes. This acted as the trigger for the US, Japan and the European Union (EU) to urge automakers to go on improving the fuel economy of vehicles.

The average fuel economy of vehicles in the US, where over the decades the citizens indulged in riding gas guzzling tank like cars, will now have to be raised to 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025 from 27.5 mpg in 2012. Even more stringent norms are in place in the EU where cars must not emit more than 95 gram of CO2 per km and must run 100 km on 4.1 litres of petrol by 2021. Compliance is ensured by the penalty for violation of prescribed emission norms. EU rules say if average CO2 emissions of a manufacturer’s fleet are in breach of limits set for any year since 2012, then it has to pay an “excess emission premium” for each vehicle unit produced. For improving air quality, the focus has to be on the transportation sector which accounts for 25% of world energy demand (from the point of manufacturing means of transport to their running) and well over 60% of yearly oil use.

What are the things automakers must do before they are entitled to wear the ‘environment badge of honour’? The basic challenge is to effect major weight reduction of vehicles to be able to conform to increasingly stricter fuel efficiency standards. “Essentially we need to deliver a 25% reduction in the weight of structural components and closures, in other words the body-in-white (BiW)of automobiles.

Steel can already do this, and we can do it in a more cost-effective and environment friendly manner than any other material,” says Lakshmi Mittal, chairman of the world’s largest steel producer ArcelorMittal.

Mittal advocating the virtues of steel like never before is seen as an attempt to fight back against the growing use of aluminium in car manufacturing in developed economies. This is despite the best quality auto grade steel, the technology for which remains the preserve of a handful, costing a few times more than aluminium.

Armed with closely held rolling technology, groups like ArcelorMittal, Nippon Steel and Posco are today able to stretch flat auto steel very thinly, which, however, is claimed to be “ten times stronger than mild steel” in use till a few years ago.

SAIL chairman Chandra Shekhar Verma does not stand the risk of being immediately challenged when he says “steel will outweigh any other metal when used for making vehicles in terms of safety, cost and environmental performance.” The scrap between makers of steel and the rival metal aluminium came into the open when Ford announced earlier this year that its long best selling pick-up truck F-150 will have an all aluminium body.

With around 97 per cent of the body structure in aluminium, Ford claims to have effected a 320 kg reduction in curb weight of the F-150 truck scheduled to hit the road soon. General Motors too have decided to use aluminium body for its next generation of Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra and achieve a still bigger weight reduction than Ford’s F-150 truck.

From Mittal to Verma all steelmakers are feeling the heat since use of aluminium is no longer confined to upmarket models from Audi, JLR and Mercedes. Mass producers keen on reducing the weight of vehicles have found virtues in aluminium. Electric cars like Tesla in the US use aluminium BiW. The fact remains aluminium has one-third the density of steel but it is as strong as the ferrous metal.

Kunal Bose is a senior journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Nov 10, 2014 00:14 IST