Vehicular Pollution – Highway to Hell

When people talk about the environment, a few prominent issues always come to mind. Pollution, urbanization, global warming and conservation are among these major issues and all other environmental problems are their derivatives or lead to these. For example, industrial waste mismanagement leads to pollution and contributes to global warming. A similar story is seen in the case of improper waste disposal, land pollution, sewage disposal and so many other rural and urban problems. Vehicular pollution is among these contemporary problems, perhaps among the most destructive of the lot. It is a global phenomenon, even though it appears to be more concentrated in certain areas like the USA, Middle East and thickly populated countries like India, etc. With more and more wealth being available to the people these days, the number of automobiles in use is increasing sharply and correspondingly, so is the amount of air pollution due to them.

Vehicular pollution refers exclusively to the air pollution caused by the emission of exhausts produced by the combustion of fuels. Most vehicles use petrol, diesel or other derivatives or blends of petroleum as fuels. Fossil fuels provide high energy output upon combustion, but also produce many by-products as wastes. The most notable among these being Particulate matter (PM), Nitrogen oxides, Sulphur dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, Ozone and toxic pollutants. Ground level ozone is produced when vehicular pollutants react with sunlight and form “smog” which irritates the respiratory tract, causes coughing, choking and decreases lung capacity. Particulate matter, of diameter less than 10 micrometer, poses the most harmful threat to humans as they can penetrate very deep into the lungs and cause irritation and abrasion. Carbon Monoxide pollution is extremely dangerous as the presence of CO in the blood prevents the intake and supply of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs, which could be fatal. Sulphur dioxide, produced by burning diesel, is toxic and is extremely harmful for asthmatic patients. Apart from drastically reducing air quality and causing dangers to health, vehicular pollution also majorly contributes to Global warming. This is an immediate concern, as climate change is becoming more and more prominent and rapid. Carbon dioxide is the major contributor to the green house effect and much of CO2 emissions come from motor vehicles.  China and USA are at the top in overall CO2 emissions while Middle Eastern countries (Qatar, UAE and Kuwait) earn the dubious honour of having the highest per capita emissions of CO2.

Being a resident of the Middle East all my life, I have witnessed unbridled and reckless usage of fuels. The arrogance of wealth among the Arab nationals and the cheap prices of fuel enable them to use up to 4 SUV’s per family. While countries like India and China lead the pollution tables because of their strong efforts to bring about rapid economic growth and a swiftly growing, increasingly self reliant population, most other developed nations like USA, South Korea, UK and GCC countries including UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are in the list merely because their citizens can afford to pollute without thinking of the consequences. A forty year old Kuwaiti citizen, Hassan Al Hussain’s (name changed) family consists of his wife, four children and two maids. But he is a proud owner of 2 GMC Suburban (6.0 L engines,) a Lamborghini Murcielago (6.2L V12 engine) and an Audi which his wife drives. This is only an example of how people spend because they can and hence pollute. Kuwait has a per capita GDP of $81,800 and is the 5th richest country (CIA World Factbook) with a population of 3.5 million but it ranks third in per capita carbon dioxide emission. The story isn’t very different in most countries of the region or in fact most of the rich, “developed” countries in the world.

Ultimately, the responsibility to decrease pollution and conserve the environment falls on the shoulders of all the citizens of the world, regardless of their nation’s economic state. Although, it is the ethical responsibilities of developed nations to contribute more, as one can’t realistically expect developing nations to put their economic growth on hold, while other nations march forward relentlessly. Having said that, reducing vehicular emissions by developing more efficient means of fuel consumption is also a means of economic development.  Efficient fuel utilization and cleaner and healthier environment are insurances for a brighter future for any nation.

Extensive work has already been done in the field of reducing and controlling vehicular pollution. Pollution control devices like catalytic convertors, efficient engines, and exhaust regulation techniques have been in use for a long time. Catalytic convertors, both two-way and three-way types, are used to convert poisonous Carbon monoxide and dangerous unburnt carbon products into the non-toxic CO2 and water. While using catalytic convertors, one must be careful to use unleaded petrol, which by itself is a pollution control measure. A well designed engine increases the efficiency of combustion of the fuel and decreases waste. Exhaust emissions should be treated before being released into the atmosphere. Air injection technique is used to burn of excess hydrocarbons at start up and Exhaust Gas Recirculation technique is used to dilute the air/fuel charge so that the peak ignition temperature comes down and hence, the amount of Nitrogen Oxides produced decreases. Another important measure that has already been put into action in many parts of the world is the use of “clean” fuels like the use of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) in India and Pakistan, Bioethanol in US and Brazil and Biodiesel in European nations. These biofuels are produced by fermenting natural sugar or by the trans esterification of vegetable and animal fats and oils.

Efforts are being taken by the governments to reduce emissions by the above mentioned methods of pollution control and by enforcing control standards like Euro 3, Euro 4, Bharat stage 4 (in India), etc. But at the turn of the century, international focus is on the development of Hybrid cars: vehicles that are not dependent on fossil fuels. I have already discussed the growth of alternate fuel powered automobiles. Hybrid vehicles use two power sources, a conventional fuel and an alternate, environmental friendly source like electricity, solar power, hydrogen, etc. Examples of hybrid vehicles include Toyota Prius- the fleet of the NYPD and the GMC Yukon Hybrid. However these vehicles are yet to make a prominent mark in the market, with the conventional SUV’s still dominating the roads. Efforts have to be made to popularize hybrid vehicles in the international market, particularly trying to push cheap, fuel efficient vehicles in middle economy countries. India’s Tata Corp. has recently released the Tata Nano, the cheapest car in the world ($2200) and is promising to release both Hybrid and Compressed-air engine versions very soon.

Thus, earnest efforts are finally being made on a large scale to reduce vehicular pollution. It would definitely take some time and much more effort to produce a measurable change, but it’s a start. It is also important to realize that the grass root efforts would make as much as a difference as the large scale ones in the longer run. Walking and using public transportation as far as possible are some efforts that we as individuals can make. Most metropolises have a very well developed public transport system, which is easy to use and costs nominal amounts. If we are ready to tolerate a little discomfort to reduce our carbon footprints, it would definitely make a difference. Another thing that we can do is opt for smaller and efficient vehicles, preferably hybrids, to reduce emissions. Also, it is a much known phenomenon that people buy larger vehicles to assert their social standing in the community. This outlook is rather regressive. We should actively encourage the Green trend. These little efforts from people always go a long way. Remember that numerous single drops of water together make an ocean. We have seen the Iron Age, the Bronze Age and the Industrial revolution and both the wonders and horrors that they have brought. The 21st century should be the Green Age, where our active participation in environmental conservation will guarantee a brighter future.

Rashmi Rajshekhar

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