Our Delusional Denial Of Tailpipe Emissions

Santosh Paul, Senior Advocate

2 Dec 2023 8:28 AM GMT

  • Our Delusional Denial Of Tailpipe Emissions

    Delhi’s air pollution spiked pre-Diwali unseasonaly to 50 times the WHO permissible limits. It remains there post Diwali 2023 as well. As much as there is tremendous urgency in addressing the issue of air pollution, the debate is predictably straying farthest away from the prime cause for it – viz. the complete absence of meaningful tail pipe emission norms in place in India. On...

    Delhi’s air pollution spiked pre-Diwali unseasonaly to 50 times the WHO permissible limits. It remains there post Diwali 2023 as well. As much as there is tremendous urgency in addressing the issue of air pollution, the debate is predictably straying farthest away from the prime cause for it – viz. the complete absence of meaningful tail pipe emission norms in place in India. On 27 November 20223, the Indian Express reported a study conducted by IIT Kanpur, IIT Delhi and TERI which attributes 35.65% to vehicular emission and 36% to secondary aerosols, a mixture of sulphates, nitrates and carbon again a product of fossil fuel burning. Therefore, the contribution for Delhi’s air pollution from vehicular emission is over 70%.

    28 Of Our Cities Make It To The Most Polluted List

    Firstly, in order to understand India’s urban air pollution problem, it is necessary to know that it is not New Delhi’s problem alone. What is ignored is that 27 other cities of India have rapidly crept into the list of the 50 most polluted cities in the world as per the AQI recorded in November 2023. For the record, the 28 cities are New Delhi, Patna, Bhagalpur, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Bhiwadi, Chandigarh, Saharsa, Begusarai, Lucknow, Karnal, Kota, Gwalior, Rajgir, Kairana, Mauli, Kanpur, Kolkata, Muzaffarpur, Gorakhpur, Jaipur, Purnia, Tonk, Rajmahal, Sitalpur, Orchha, Agartala and Gaya.

    Yet every debate, every Supreme Court litigation, every governmental enquiry, every discussion on television ignores the fundamental question which needs to be asked - what is common to all these 28 Indian cities making it to the devil’s list? The answer is obvious - it cannot be anything but the tailpipe emissions of the 376 million vehicles on our roads. This is now made manifest by the joint IIT and TERI 2023 report.

    How Did We Manage To Do This?

    How did we manage to do this to ourselves? Delusional logic certainly is one. It also displays that we as a society are unable to come to grips with the problem in a scientific manner.

    In the year 2002 RSPM levels in Delhi had just touched 182 which was treated alarming enough for the Supreme Court, then headed by a bench of Justice B.N. Kirpal, to intervene decisively. The Court on credible scientific opinion targeted tail pipe emissions and banned diesel driven (the universally recognized dirty fuel) public transport vehicles in Delhi. The conversion of the entire public transport fleet to CNG resulted in dramatic improvement in the air quality.

    This breath of fresh air was short-lived. In a little over a decade, we managed to reverse the benefits of that Supreme Court decision, by introducing millions of diesel fuelled passenger cars bereft of any meaningful tailpipe emission norms. India took to dieselization, with middle class complicity, given our propensity for cheap motoring, with a zealous fervour. First, it was the subsidy which enticed us. When the subsidy was removed, we still chose diesel simply because the mileage was better. So, in India, we had a phenomenon of every car manufacturer having a diesel option unheard of in the rest of the world. This explains why 28 Indian cities are reeling under the scourge of pollution.

    Calls For Emission Norms And Ending Diesel Dependance Scuttled

    Innumerable voices from the industry and other interests, when confronted with demands for (1) rigorous tailpipe emission norms, (2) to curtail the dieselization (dependence on the dirty fuel) and (3) the need to implement Euro VI, found new and remarkably naive narratives quickly lapped up by our institutions and the populace alike. The last decade was wasted in attributing the poisonous air of Delhi to desert dust, stubble burning, garbage burning, etc. in fact, everything except tailpipe emissions. If desert dust was the cause, nobody in these years questioned why cities in the midst of searing deserts like Dubai, Riyad, Muscat, Doha, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv have world standard low RSPM levels. And so also if farm fires and stubble burning around Delhi were the cause, why have 28 of our Indian cities risen to the dizzying heights of pollution?

    The Euro VI which we chose to ignore for almost a decade was a game changer in curtailing tailpipe emissions. It kicked in as early as 2015 in most parts of the globe. Euro VI achieved a spectacular 90% reduction in particulate matter [PM 2.5], 80% reduction in nitrogen oxides, 26% reduction in hydrocarbons, and also sulphur and carbon monoxide. Yet we lived in a delusional world of ‘NO NEED FOR EURO VI’.

    The Fallacy Of The Emerging Economy Argument

    Cities across the globe, when scientifically dealing with air pollution always zeroed-in on tailpipe emissions. Remember the late 1970s, when Los Angeles was plagued with blinding smog due to air pollution? A frontal attack was made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) by introducing rigorous regulations for containing tailpipe emissions with mandatory catalytic converters for cars. Barrack Obama recounted the fallacious objections (which are currently used ad nauseum here) made at that time to object to the control of tailpipe emissions including “this is going to kill jobs, this is going to destroy businesses, this is going to hurt low-income people, it is going to be wildly expensive”. Obama added, “And each time, they were wrong”. The Los Angeles success story is four decades ago.

    In Client Earth v. Secretary for Environment, the UK Supreme Court of United Kingdom in 2015 directly dealt with tail pipe emissions and diesel pollution to curtail UK’s urban air pollution and ordered strict compliance of EU emission norms.

    Every world-class city which had to battle pollution, enforced strict emission norms and yet reached the highest frontiers of economic excellence. The low RSPM levels, be it in Sydney (3.85), Adelaide (4.49), Washington DC (33), London (33), Vancouver (4.77), Stockholm (5.00), Tokyo (12), Toronto (16), Berlin (16), San Francisco (20), Munich (22), Amsterdam (24), Vienna (27), Chicago (28), Paris (40), Shanghai (41), Bangkok (61), Tel Aviv (62), Kuala Lumpur (43), Istanbul ((37) prove a point. Besides, if India is to be on the fastest growth path and is to become a FDI hotspot, it certainly cannot simultaneously be exposed to the charge of having 28 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world.

    Ultimately The Supreme Court Ushers In Euro VI

    Ultimately, it was the Supreme Court of India alone which by an order mandated that from 2020 onwards, only Bharat – 6 (a near equivalent of Euro VI) compliant vehicles would be sold in India. The leapfrogging to Euro VI (skipping Euro V), was a significant step, albeit too late in the day. The problem lies in the fact that by year 2020, more than 326.3 million vehicles with antiquated Bharat 4 norms unfortunately were and still are on our roads. Post 2020 only 56 million Bharat 6 vehicles have been added. So our roads are still filled with antiquated Bharat 4 regime and crude diesel driven vehicles.

    The Wrong Answers For The Wrong Question

    So, every winter, a slew of measures which are temporary and often symbolic are paraded for the nation’s capital. As I said, the rest of India’s 27 most polluted cities for some reason do not feature in the debate. Measures like odd and even cars, no construction, pollution tax, no car days are mooted and sometimes administered. And at all times the administration is on a metrological look out for showers/gusts of wind. None of these measures address the central cause for urban air pollution viz. the implementation of stringent tail pipe emission norms.

    Our lungs, breathe in 10,000 liters of ambient air containing between 400 to 900 + RSPM c3 (Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter per cubic meter) amongst other toxic gases. The WHO standard of permissible RSPM levels is 20. It is not 100, as claimed by the government sources. It would be trite to say that vehicular emissions contain mutagens and carcinogens which cause cancers, heart failures, ischemic strokes, chronic bronchitis, heart damage, cardiovascular disease and cardiopulmonary diseases. Its impact on our children includes, tragically brain damage. This air is killing all of us. The European Environment Agency has just published its 2023 report which attributes toxic air to having killed half a million people in 2021 in the EU countries. Mind you, this is with the rigorous Euro VI in place for a decade. Out of the 8 million deaths worldwide from outdoor air pollution, 61% is attributed to burning of fossil fuels a world wide study reported to the British Medical Journal. We can only guestimate that if we have 60% of the most polluted cities in the world how many of us have succumbed to this scourge.

    World Is Moving To Euro VII

    As we debate aimlessly and ignore studies like the 2023 reports of IIT and TERI, the developed part of the world is moving to Euro VII. It is slated to kick in 2025. It will bring down emissions even further. It has targeted further reductions (from Euro VI) by 35% nitrate emission for cars and by 56% for buses and trucks, particulate emissions by 13% for cars and by 39 % for buses and trucks.

    Looking In Askance For Leadership

    The vehicle policy ought to be concentrating on bringing down emission levels and also encouraging cheaper, hybrid and EV vehicles. Strangely, even as of today hybrid vehicles have anachronistically an over 40% taxes which is certainly not helping the situation. Transportation and Fiscal policy and taxation strategies should encourage quick makeover to Euro VI and ultimately Euro VII vehicles. There is no option but to transition to cleaner energy hybrid and EV vehicles if we have to see any significant reduction in air pollution in our lifetime. The IIT and TERI 2023 reports are the guide for the future of our vehicle policy in India.

    Millions of Indians are gasping on the poisonous gases of our cities. They are looking for a strong-willed and unwavering leadership, be it in the Parliament, the bureaucracy or the judiciary. With 28 of our cities in the top 50 most polluted cities, we have reached the edge of a catastrophic environmental precipice. Unless the government policy fiscal and the measures and judicial deliberation makes a tectonic shift decisively to control tailpipe emissions by introduction of Euro VI and then quickly on to the Euro VII, there is no hope for the sum total of all of us.


    The author is a Senior Advocate at Supreme Court of India.

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