Downbeat diesel

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The government must be more proactive in shifting vehicles to cleaner fuels.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/downbeat-diesel/article26974276.ece

Why in news?

• The decision taken by Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest passenger vehicle manufacturer, to eliminate diesel models from April 1, 2020, when the Bharat Stage VI emission standard is introduced, mirrors emerging global trends.

Move away from diesel

• Although diesel has powered India’s commercial transport segment for decades, its fortunes are declining for several reasons, beginning with the narrowing of the price differential with petrol.

• It has lost its shine in Europe, the world’s biggest market for diesel cars where sales of even well-known marques have fallen during 2018 by 20%.

• The Indian carbuyer’s romance with diesel powertrains lasted nearly a decade. In 2012-13, diesel cars accounted for 48% of passenger vehicle sales in the country.

• The main reason was the sharply lower price of diesel as compared to petrol — a yawning Rs 25 per litre at its peak.

o This changed when the decontrol of fuel prices started in late 2014. The price difference has since come down to under Rs 6.5 per litre — the closest the two fuels have been in price since 1991.

o Consequently, diesel cars accounted for just about 22% of overall passenger vehicle sales in 2018-19, less than half the share they had five years ago.

• The diesel emissions data scandal involving carmaker Volkswagen dismayed many consumers.

• Given the prevailing economics and diesel’s reputation as a dirty fuel that adds to pollution from cars, buses and freight vehicles, auto companies see a weak business case to upgrade them.

Maruti’s decision

• Maruti Suzuki’s decision makes it clear that in spite of being a strong past performer, this fuel is riding into the sunset as far as the personal vehicle is concerned.

• The main reason behind Maruti Suzuki’s announcement, however, is not the fuel price differential, but the new emission norms that will come into effect on April 1, 2020 — less than a year from now.

o The prohibitively high cost of upgrading diesel engines to meet the new BS-VI emission norms is why leading carmakers have pulled the plug on their diesel options.

o The economics of the conversion does not make it worthwhile to continue with the diesel option after the transition to BS-VI.

• The difference in the price of a petrol and a diesel car, now around Rs 1 lakh on average, could go up to Rs 2.5 lakh.

• Also, the sentiment for diesel is not good in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, making it extra uncertain if customers would want to pay the big premium.

• This outcome should be welcomed for the positive impact it will have on air quality and public health.

Bharat Stage norms

• The BS — Bharat Stage — emission standards are norms instituted by the government to regulate the output of air pollutants from internal combustion engine equipment, including motor vehicles.

o India has been following European (Euro) emission norms, although with a time lag of five years.

• India introduced emission norms first in 1991, and tightened them in 1996, when most vehicle manufacturers had to incorporate technology upgrades such as catalytic converters to cut exhaust emissions.

o Fuel specifications based on environmental considerations were notified first in April 1996, to be implemented by 2000, and incorporated in BIS 2000 standards.

• Following the landmark Supreme Court order of April 1999, the Centre notified Bharat Stage-I (BIS 2000) and Bharat Stage-II norms, broadly equivalent to Euro I and Euro II respectively.

o BS-II was for the National Capital Region and other metros; BS-I for the rest of India.

• From April 2005, in line with the Auto Fuel Policy of 2003, BS-III and BS-II fuel quality norms came into existence for 13 major cities, and for the rest of the country respectively.

• From April 2010, BS-IV and BS-III norms were put in place in 13 major cities and the rest of India respectively.

• As per the Policy roadmap, BS-V and BS-VI norms were to be implemented from April 1, 2022, and April 1, 2024 respectively.

• But in November 2015, the Road Transport Ministry issued a draft notification advancing the implementation of BS-V norms for new four-wheel vehicle models to April 1, 2019, and for existing models to April 1, 2020.

• The corresponding dates for BS-VI norms were brought forward to April 1, 2021, and April 1, 2022, respectively.

• Soon afterward, however, Road Transport Ministry announced that the government had decided to leapfrog to BS-VI from April 1, 2020, skipping BS-V all together.

Degradation of air quality

• Automotive emissions, especially in congested cities, have risen due to steady economic growth, proliferation of vehicles and more vehicle kilometres travelled.

• In Delhi, for instance, the effect of shifting the three-wheeler and bus fleet to Compressed Natural Gas during a four-year period from 1998 improved air quality, but the gains were quickly negated by a rise in overall vehicle numbers, especially those run on diesel, besides a rise in other sources of pollution.

• Diesel emissions pose hidden hazards, too. Besides the harmful fine and ultra fine particulates that they contain, the vehicular exhaust adds to ground-level ozone formed from nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons combining in the presence of sunlight, seriously harming respiratory health.

Way forward

• The national plan to shift to higher quality BS VI grade fuels may offer some mitigation of pollution, but that can only be a respite.

• Improving air quality in the cities requires a transformative planning approach guided by the singular objective of reducing the use of polluting vehicles.

• Such a policy would prioritise less-polluting and alternative fuels for vehicles, but more important, encourage walking, cycling and using public transport.

• This is the direction that many world cities are taking. Paris, Madrid and Athens have announced a prohibition on diesel vehicles by 2025, while London has made it more expensive for older vehicles to enter the city. India has to chart its own equitable and accessible green path.

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