Diesel Has To Be Our Public Enemy No.1

Published: November 03, 2016 18:41 IST
Bans don't really make sense unless there's scientific reasoning that people are at risk. And that's the case with diesel, specially at a time when pollution is quite literally hitting us in the face. Diesel exhaust puts people at grave risk.

1. Diesel fumes are carcinogenic increasing the possibility of lung cancer; a US study from as far back as 2005 shows that "diesel exhaust poses a cancer risk 7.5 times higher than the combined total cancer risk from all other air toxics".

2. Diesel exhaust contains nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, some so small (PM 2.5 and less) that these penetrate the cells of your lungs. 

3. Euro 6 standards have not been effective, yet, as shown by a study by the ICCT, the agency which blew the lid off the Volkswagen emissions fraud. It says, "These studies have shown that despite large reductions in the NOX limit value for (Euro 6) diesel vehicles, very little improvement in real-world NOX emissions from diesel vehicles has occurred in Europe."

4. In the last five years, the number of diesel cars being registered on an average in Delhi is over 59,000, more than double that of the previous five years. 

The rather brilliant if subdued report by IIT Kanpur on Delhi's pollution earlier this year explains how polluting diesel is: Vehicular pollution is "the second largest source and most consistently contributing source to PM 10 and PM 2.5 in winter. In the category of cars, it is estimated that in PM emission, petrol cars contributes about 22% and rest 78% is contributed by diesel cars."

So how could a ban be rolled out? For starters, it wouldn't be an immediate ban but would be introduced latest, say, in five years. It should be a complete ban on the sale of diesel, the sale of diesel cars, generators etc. If a timeline is announced now, anybody who's buying a car or generator now could plan accordingly. An announcement now would hopefully disincentivise people from buying diesel cars. It's nobody's case that jobs should be threatened or cut, so this time would also give industry time to work on the alternative fuels. This ban can be done by balancing both jobs and serious health concerns. 

Yet, despite all the studies, the love for diesel continues. Yes, I agree with the counterargument that it's not the only cause of pollution, it's not the biggest cause, etc. But so what? Think about it - diesel exhaust is one of the deadliest, ambient air pollution we are closest to. Wherever car engines are run, in colonies or apartment blocks, in our driveways, in underground parking, this is the ambient air we are breathing...what our kids are breathing on the school commute, in parks, at playgrounds.

This requires a widespread, reasoned change of attitude against diesel. That's not going to happen easily, pollution is barely a political priority until it hits the headlines. If the crises of the last couple of years, when on some days the visibility dropped drastically because of heavy pollution, couldn't compel the centre or states to take action, then the only option and hope for any action is the Supreme Court.

It speaks volumes of our successive governments, regardless of party, that none has implemented the ban on diesel taxis ordered by the Supreme Court...in 1998! Not just that, major automobile firms fought back tooth and nail, understandably but regrettably, when the Supreme Court imposed a ban, in December 2015, on diesel car engines bigger than 2000 cc. Within a few months, at least one major firm had worked around this problem and advertised cars which met "the new regulations governing the sale of diesel vehicles in Delhi NCR". Another two firms successfully argued that a 1% "green" cess be levied in place of a ban. Such ingenuity to get around the ban is admirable, but have these auto giants really been unaware of  the dangers of diesel for all these years? 

A representative of a German car-maker I asked during the last auto expo in Greater Noida put it in a nutshell - that they were following all the local laws. Which sort of completes the circle of passing the buck. 

Would a ban on diesel really be that objectionable? 

1. It can be just in Delhi to start with. Then scale it up every six months or so to other crowded and congested cities like Gurugram, Ludhiana, Kanpur and so on.

2. Announce it now, start it five years later. 

3. As long as the supply is stopped, filling up in next door towns or smuggling it in will be a nuisance or expensive option for most. 

4. If the Power Minister's data on India improving electricity availability is correct, who knows, generators in Gurugram could be a thing of the past in five years.

5. In Germany, the upper legislative house has passed a resolution to ban not just diesel but all internal combustion engines by 2030. 

6. In France, Renault may stop making diesel cars altogether; there was a shadow over whether Renault had also like VW fudged emission tests.

7. In the UK, there are moves to ban diesel cars from cities including London.

As the IIT Kanpur report says, there's a lot else to be done. But a diesel ban will not just be definitive action against a major pollutant but a strong signal that India can be ahead of the curve in curbing pollution. It cannot be business as usual.

(Chetan Bhattacharji is Managing Editor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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