Dealing with Smoke Spewers

One of the worst concerns of Air pollution is that it is not restricted by political boundaries: If we pollute Delhi, we pollute India (with a little bit exaggeration) we pollute the planet. And one of the main sources of Air pollution is automobile exhausts (at least in India). Automobile pollution is not only a quantitative contributor, but also a deadly pollutant source when the fatality of the polluting components is considered. Hydrocarbons, one of the main pollutants in the exhausts, are formed from partial burning of fossil fuels. It is the major component in urban smog (a mixture of smoke and fog) and is known to cause major damages to liver and cancer. Carbon Mono-oxide (CO), also formed by incomplete combustion, attaches itself to haemoglobin in blood, thus hindering it from carrying oxygen to various parts of the body. Sulphur oxides and Nitrogen oxides are known to increase the possibilities of smog and acid rain. Carbon di-oxide, which we all know is not a pollutant but a Green House Gas (GHG), contributes to global warming.

The time has come to focus on Automobile pollution because the number of automobiles has been increasing many-fold in the developing countries. Even China which is known to promote cycling over other forms of vehicles, have seen a doubling of number of automobiles every five years. India is no different. With rising incomes, many in the middle class and upper middles class sector have opted for cars. Not to mention what R K Pachauri had to say when Nano was launched: “This represents the failure of our public transport system” Several developed countries including US have considerably reduced the contribution of automobiles to air pollution by stricter emission control methods and various other policies. The time has come for India also.

What India needs at this moment is a proper public policy which concentrates on sustainable development. It also needs to fill the rift between policy, planning and execution. One way in which India can start is by spending more on research in this sector. It can form international collaboration for research in the areas of alternate fuels, alternate transport options and emission management. But of course, these are long term options, which are quite important, if we consider that cutting GHGs in future (with help of new technologies) is many-fold cheaper than cutting GHGs now (and disrupting development). For now, we have to come up with some innovative “backdoor” ways which doesn’t interrupt our development.

Experts have proved that automobile exhausts can be reduced up to 80% by proper maintenance of our automobile engines and proper management of the traffic and roads. Periodic cleaning of carbon deposits (which gives rise to incomplete combustion), overhauling of the carburetor can help in reducing our carbon foot-print. In India there are no limits for the age of the automobiles (private and commercial alike) in use. This has to change; as it has been proved that older vehicles cause more pollution than newer ones. The Indian Government has had some policies directed towards emission control like adhering to Euro II norms, and mandating the installation of catalytic converter in all vehicles. But as mentioned before the planning and execution has been patchy. There is a need for tougher emission controls.

The tougher emission controls have to be complemented by cheaper means for cutting emissions. Alternate fuels can be another shortcut towards cutting down GHGs. Alternate fuels like propane, reduces the level of incomplete combustion and thereby cutting down CO exhausts. Ethanol or Methanol, blended gasoline not only reduces CO exhausts, but also eliminate smog and particulates completely. In addition to these advantages, such fuels can also be produced cheaply from renewable resources like seaweed and garbage. Bio-diesel is also touted as one of the less polluting variants. But recently it has come under severe criticism in South American countries because of routing of substantial amount of food crops for production of bio-diesel. Electric fuel vehicles are completely pollution free but unattractive to users because of low speed and acceleration provided by such vehicles.

Refining of existing fuels by removing Sulphur and Lead from them can also substantially reduce the hazards of the exhausts. Unleaded petrol is already used widely in India, thanks to proper campaigning by oil companies and the government.

One of the most important ways in which India can reduce automobile pollution is by improving the public transport system. This multi pronged strategy involves encouraging people to use public transport instead of their own vehicles and complementing it with overhauling of the public transport system by making it more eco-friendly. The government is partly pursuing this by coming up with electricity-driven monorail system and metro rail system in major Indian metros. But rail system has less area coverage than bus transport system. The focus should move on to the metropolitan bus transport system. There are lots of examples around the world to emulate: The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system of Curitiba, Brazil; the TransMileno of Colombia which is also based on the Curitiba model. These systems work by dedicating lanes for the buses on roads wherever possible, thereby making the buses more efficient. TransMileno boasts of transporting 40,000 passengers per hour. These models might not work right away in Indian metros; a little customization is needed. The government is already mulling over the option of introducing BRT in Delhi, but has seen some stiff resistance from lobbyist. The government can also consider certain models of London, where private vehicles are completely banned in certain areas. The key is to prove that Public Transport will be faster and cheaper than using private vehicles. Apart from all these factors policy makers should also ensure that the public vehicles are eco-friendly by periodic overhaul and replacement on need basis. This can additionally have the advantage of decongestion of roads in metros. Dedicated cycle lanes have also been in the radar of the government for a while. But again it is being met with stiff resistance from motorists. The cycle lanes are a matter of tricky legislation. It can give undue legal advantage to cyclist in case of accidents with motorists, ultimately leading to disgruntlement among motorists. Cycle lanes also require complex traffic signal rules. So this needs careful thought and care before execution. There can be other ways, a little outlandish, like putting a cap on the emissions of private vehicles over a period and imposing a tax on over-usage. Micro level carbon trading may also be allowed between vehicle owners to ensure that overall automobile pollution remains under control.

The above mentioned ways are only policy changes. And it doesn’t ensure that pollution will be controlled. As mentioned earlier these policy changes should be supported by meticulous planning and flawless execution.

Nallasivan V

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