India to introduce clean fuels faster to combat Delhi smog crisis

Michael Safi
 People cover their faces from the dust and smog in Delhi. Photograph: Harish Tyagi/EPA

Measures aimed at slashing vehicle emissions will be introduced two years early, the Indian government has announced in its first major policy response to the Delhi smog crisis.

As the haze improved slightly on Wednesday – albeit to levels still considered “very poor” – the Indian petroleum ministry said it would introduce Bharat VI fuels from April next year, instead of April 2020 as originally planned.

The Bharat standards govern the volume of toxic materials permitted in the fuels that power the estimated 10 million cars that operate in the Indian capital and contribute significantly to its dangerously poor air quality.

The new fuels will have one-fifth the sulphur count of the existing standards, and 1,000 times less sulphur than fuels used in 1995.

Polash Mukherjee, an air pollution researcher at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, said the fuel standards would need to be paired with equally stringent technology standards to be fully effective. The combination of the two could reduce particulate matter from diesel vehicles by 90%, and petrol vehicles by around 60%, he said.

The technology standards are scheduled to be implemented in 2020, but Mukherjee said lobbying efforts were under way to bring them forward.

Vehicle emissions make up around a fifth of the total pollution load in Delhi. Studies suggest road dust thrown up by vehicles contributes another 35%. The two combined result in gaseous fumes forming secondary particles that bond with the thick dust and lingering in the air.

The initiative is the first long-term policy step to be taken by the central government since pollution levels reached “hazardous” levels last week and doctors declared a public health emergency.

 Delhi smog declared public health emergency – video

Narendra Modi’s government has been accused of failing to take the crisis seriously, while some measures announced by Delhi authorities have been held up by courts and criticised as quick fixes.

On Wednesday the Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, met his counterpart in Haryana, a neighbouring state that also has dangerous air pollution levels. In a joint statement with Manohar Lal Khattar, Kejriwal said the pair had agreed “on many measures aimed at preventing its re-occurrence in the winter of 2018”.

Kejriwal has been critical of the states that surround Delhi for not cracking down on the annual burning of hundreds of acres of crop waste, which sends toxic smoke billowing across north India. However, state leaders including the Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, have said their farmers cannot afford to clear their fields any other way, and need financial incentives to do so.

“Farmers cannot be expected to give up crop residue burning completely till the time they are provided viable solutions,” Singh said on Tuesday.

Meteorologists have predicted the “very poor” conditions will last for the foreseeable future. 

[Top photo:  People cover their faces from the dust and smog in Delhi. Photograph: Harish Tyagi/EPA]