Clear the Air With Clean Vehicles

(Ray Minjares leads the Program on Clean Air at the International Council on Clean Transportation.)

Air pollution in India's cities is needlessly condemning an entire generation to shorter, sicker lives. A failure of public policy to support cleaner transportation is a major cause.

Cars and trucks contribute one-quarter to one-third of the air pollution in Indian cities, and diesel vehicles are the worst offenders. In Europe, where diesels account for more than half of passenger vehicles, proportional to the share in India, city officials are pushing back against national policies that favoured diesels. The Mayor of Paris recently called for a ban on diesel passenger cars by 2020.

India made meaningful progress on clean vehicles in the past, but it stalled in 2010 with the end of the Auto Fuels Policy Roadmap. The country has lost five years debating whether to extend this Roadmap, eroding the benefits that had been gained. A new Roadmap is what India needs now, with an accelerated schedule to make up for lost time.

The Petroleum Ministry has taken the right step and endorsed an accelerated timeline for nationwide Bharat VI fuels and vehicles - the cleanest available - by 2020, but members of the auto industry have requested delays. The Government must now choose a timeline for the sale of these vehicles in India.

More and more countries like Korea, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, the United States, Japan, and the European Union have mandated cleaner fuels and vehicles that match Bharat VI. The Indian auto industry has kept a foothold in these markets by learning to meet local vehicle emission standards. Tata, Suzuki, Hyundai, Volvo, Ford, and others today manufacture vehicles in India that already meet Bharat VI. They sell these vehicles abroad, reserving older technology vehicles for the Indian market.

Neighboring Sri Lanka is a model for progressive clean vehicle policies. The country has adopted steep taxation of polluting diesel and gasoline vehicles and dramatically increased sales of hybrid vehicles. The Government is now debating a move to Bharat VI equivalent vehicles by 2017. It would be embarrassing to see the Indian vehicle industry export its cleanest vehicles to Sri Lanka, while continuing to sell older technology in India.

The Government must now choose: act swiftly to address the air pollution crisis, or heed a request for delays. The auto makers clearly have the capacity to provide India with the clean vehicle technology it needs and should endorse a 2020 timeline. This action would clear the path for swift adoption of a new Auto Fuels Policy Roadmap by the Government.

The Government must consider other actions as well, since a Bharat VI timeline will address pollution only from new vehicles and not from the existing vehicles on the roads today. The scale of the air-pollution challenge requires accelerated retirement of the highest-emitting vehicles, as well as inspection and maintenance programs that accurately identify and repair malfunctioning vehicles.

Cleaner vehicles will lead to cleaner air. The government should quickly adopt a comprehensive package of strategies for clean transportation.