COVID-19 Crisis: Beginning of clean air and the end of oil age in India

Publish on June 02, 2020     Source: Financial Express

The most significant contributor to air pollution in India are vehicles running on petrol or diesel. Urban Emissions found PM 2.5 levels in Delhi during lockdown at 20 micrograms per cubic meter with a 20-day average of 35.

India is under lockdown since 25 March – over 60 days now. For a country of 1.3 billion and with more than 100 million vehicles of all types, configurations, engines and fuel on roads, it is an incredible feat to keep everyone locked up at home for two months. Smoke sputtering trucks, three-wheelers and cars jostling for space on the streets have not been seen for a while. The entire transportation system of the country is on a pause. While the impact, costs, benefits and losses of lockdown would be a topic for debate for a long time, one thing is for sure – the environment has been the biggest beneficiary of this lockdown. Seeing pictures of the Himalayas visible from Saharanpur and Jalandhar to clean waters Ganga, the impact has been profound. Take the case of Clean Ganga mission – what could not be achieved after decades and spending thousands of crores, lockdown could do in six weeks.

The average AQI (air quality index) of Delhi was 360 in December 2018; in 2017, it was 450. Anything above 100 is considered dangerous for breathing. The deadliest particle in Delhi’s foul air is the tiny but fatal PM 2.5, which increases the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This primarily comes from combustion – fires, automobiles and power plants.

Urban Emissions found the levels of PM 2.5 in Delhi during the lockdown plummeted to 20 micrograms per cubic meter with a 20-day average of 35. To put this into context, between 2017 and 2019, the monthly percentage of PM 2.5 in the capital was up to four times higher. (The national standard is set at 40, and the WHO has an annual average guideline of just ten micrograms per cubic meter)

The most significant contributor to air pollution in India is the vehicles running on hydrocarbon fuels – petrol or diesel. The burning of these fuels produces harmful gases like CO, NOX and release other unburnt fuel as particulate matter into the air. Diesel, in particular, is the most significant contributor to this contamination of air releasing around 50 mg of CO and NOX per Km. A car emits carbon monoxide when the carbon in fuel doesn’t burn completely.

When fuel burns, nitrogen and oxygen react with each other and form nitrogen oxides (NOx). Particulate matter — small particles of foreign substances — in the air contributes to atmospheric haze and can damage people’s lungs. To counter and discourage vehicle makers using these fuels, Govt. has been tightening emission norms over the years, the latest being the implementation of Bharat Stage 6 starting April 2020. This limits the emission of CO to 2g/km and calls for a reduction of NOX by 25% in light-duty vehicles and 80% in heavy-duty vehicles.

The emission control is achieved in two ways – in the cylinder during ignition, and after treatment post, the contaminants are released from the engine. This is fine, but the problem is implementing these measures cost money, and it increases the cost of vehicles which gets passed on to the end customer.

In the case of BSVI, we have seen the price of a diesel vehicle going up by almost two lakh. In a high price-sensitive market, it impacts the purchase of the car. Commercial vehicles, on the other hand, are business enablers for the users. The owner has to earn money out of the three-wheeler or the truck he purchases and deploys in the fleet. Hence there is a reluctance to buy a higher-priced vehicle at the cost of environmental damage.

The solution to this is non-hydrocarbon fuel vehicles. The battery-powered vehicles are the best option right now. With the mature technology of Li-Ion battery and powertrain, we see this as the best option right now. The success of Tesla has given a big push to the electrification of vehicles globally. The majority of OEMs in Europe and the USA have announced their migration to electric cars. This is undoubtedly going to happen in India too.

Three-wheelers and two-wheelers are expected to be the early adopters in India, followed by Minibuses and light trucks. Going further as other technologies like hydrogen fuel mature, the changeover from hydrocarbon would be complete.

We see the following drivers of this shift in the Indian market:

– Technology maturity and cost viability for electric vehicles.

– Govt. pushes towards a cleaner environment with policies like alternate fuel and vehicle scrappage etc.

– Environmental factors – pollution is going to become increasingly severe in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic. Globally, governments will have to make commitments to control such type of outbreaks and ensure healthy living for their citizens.

The beginning of a known oil economy has been accelerated by this unexpected and unfortunate event on humanity. As India reboots, we see a clear shift from traditional fuel to a new non-oil based energy secure country.

Unfortunate events like COVID-19 have only one positive – clean environment.

Author: Dr Deb Mukherji, PhD, Managing Director, Omega Seiki Mobility

Disclaimer: These are compilation of links to articles in media/journals/magazines in their original form. The opinion expressed in there articles do not necessarily represent the views of ENVIS/IITM.

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