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Green tax: What makes diesel cars so deadly

The Supreme Court’s notice to the government on a proposal to levy green tax on diesel cars has thrown up some alarming facts on the state of Delhi’s air and why diesel emissions pose such a serious threat to public health today.

The apex court’s notice to the government comes only a few weeks after Delhi residents went through a seemingly unending ordeal with smog – a dreadful reminder of the critical levels of pollution in the air we breathe.

“This early winter, pollution levels have spiked to very unhealthy levels. Data from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee shows that in the first week of November, since the cold has settled in and fog conditions have been created, air pollutants have peaked… (particulate matter) is eight times higher than standard. NO2 has jumped to ... 2.8 times the standard. These levels are unacceptable, because they are a clear health hazard. Already there is evidence of severe respiratory ailments afflicting people. The air is toxic,” said amicus curiae Harish Salve in his application to the Supreme Court.

Do diesel fuelled cars make the smog worse? Reuters

Salve has proposed an ‘environment compensation charge of 25 per cent of the sale value each private diesel car’ and 2 per cent (in case of a petrol car) and 4 per cent (in case of a diesel car) of the sale price charged annually on all private cars in the National Capital Region region. (Read full statement here )

And a key factor costing Delhi the gains of converting public transport to CNG (compressed natural gas) is - no prizes for guessing - diesel cars, which have dramatically grown from four per cent of the car market sales in 2000 to more than 50 per cent now.

Earlier this year, WHO reclassified diesel exhaust as a Class I carcinogen (cancer causing). In effect, it slotted diesel exhaust in the same category as deadly substances such as arsenic, asbestos and tobacco.

“I’m not sure how people know this. The reason diesel emissions have been reclassified as Class I carcinogen is because the studies have shown that there is a strong link between diesel emissions and lung cancer,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the air pollution and clean transportation programme, Centre for Science and Environment, a leading environment research and advocacy group.

Identifying more critical facts about diesel emissions that car buyers should be aware of, Roychowdhury says, “Under the current emission standards of Bharat Stage IV in Delhi, diesel cars are legally allowed to emit several times more nitrogen oxide and particulate matter compared to petrol cars…Today both particulate matter and nitrogen oxide levels are increasing in Delhi. So we don’t want to add those pollution sources that emit these pollutants.”

“Third, the Indian public needs to understand that our diesel technology and diesel quality falls woefully short of the international benchmark of clean diesel. Often the car industry says that  even in Europe diesel car numbers are going up. But first compare the quality of diesel that Europe has. The sulphur content in diesel in Europe is 10 parts per million (ppm). In India, it is between 50 and 350 ppm… India today is several years behind Europe (since we follow Euro based emission norms).”

According to CSE, diesel and petrol cars become comparable only at Euro VI level emissions, which will be implemented in Europe in 2014-15. (Full statement here)

“What is absolutely unacceptable is that after the implementation of Bharat stage III and IV in 2010 there has been no road map that set a timeline for the car industry to meet tighter emissions standards,” says Roychowdhury.

While the government dithers on clean diesel fuel and Euro VI emission standards is levying a green tax on diesel cars the most effective way forward? What about the big incentive – the diesel subsidy – that is responsible for the growing demand for diesel cars?

Strongly criticising the subsidy on diesel, Roychowdhury says, “You cannot build a case in which diesel cars enjoy any kind of subsidy, which they are doing currently. Why should government and oil companies subsidise cars. Cars after all are not a necessity, they are a luxury.”

But given the political hurdles to any move on diesel subsidy, Roychowdhury says: “Politically it is becoming difficult to equalize the taxes for petrol and diesel. If the government cannot do that, they will have to tax the car more. So that they can fully nuetralise the incentive the car owner enjoys from cheaper fuel. You need a car taxation policy.”