Steering Indian Cities Towards Higher Fuel Quality Standards

How can we encourage standards for less polluting fuels? Photo by Meena Kadri.

While scaling up sustainable transportation solutions worldwide, it’s important that we still consider the reality of personal automobile demand. Tackling the lower-hanging fruit of vehicular emissions reductions in densely populated developing countries is critical for mitigating climate change and improving human health. The International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) has published several studies and recently held web seminars to discuss India’s fuel quality regulatory strengths and weaknesses, ahead of a government report expected in the near future.

Solutions for Sulfur 

Toxic lead has been removed from petrol and diesel in India and most of the world. However, pollutants like oxides, nitrogen, carbon, sulfur and particulate matter are still a problem.

There are some bright spots. The amount of sulfur in Indian petrol has reduced dramatically from 2,000 parts per million (ppm) to 150ppm; and in diesel fuel, it has reduced from 10,000ppm  to 350ppm. But there is still some work to be done.

In 20 Indian cities, the average amount of sulfur for both types of fuel is 50ppm. Unfortunately, many diesel trucks still pollute in these cities because they fuel up elsewhere. To raise air quality in the nation overall, ICCT recommends adopting a national regulation of 50ppm.

Sustainable energy and transportation expert Anup Bandivadekar, speaking at the ICCT’s recent web seminar, regards sulfur in fuel as “the lynchpin in India’s efforts to control vehicle emissions going forward, especially given that the heavy trucks that run on diesel are the largest contributors to vehicle emissions, but certainly as the market share of passenger car diesels is increasing rapidly in India.” (Diesel cars now make up 40 percent of new vehicles in 2011, potentially offsetting  many of the health benefits of India’s last decade of emissions improvements.)

Sulfur in fuel is directly correlated with adverse public health effects. For example, in the five years after 1990, when Hong Kong mandated lower sulfur levels in vehicles and power plant fuels, annual all-cause mortality fell 1 to 2 percent and respiratory mortality dropped 3 to 9 percent. These health benefits were from only regulating sulfur reduction in fuels, not through regulation on vehicle filtration technology.

Bandivadekar’s research, done with his ICCT colleague Gaurav Bansal, has shown harmful emissions in India could be lowered 7 percent through reducing sulfur in all fuels at all stations to 50ppm. This would also be a suitable enough reduction to allow for the use of existing emissions filter technology like catalytic converters. Reaching the goal of 50ppm of sulfur, combined with using existing technology, would reduce vehicular nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) emissions 12 percent by 2015. Reducing sulfur levels to 10ppm would mean an 87 percent reduction of NOx and PM by 2030. That’s 43 million metric tons of vehicular NOx emissions and 9 million metric tons of PM not emitted in India between 2013-2030.

Future Costs

The transition requires upgrading existing oil refineries to meet the newest standards of quality, adjusting the price of ultra-quality fuels, and ensuring strong enforcement. The total costs of the shift will be difficult to bear for much of India, however the long-term benefits would be worth it, considering it would lead to a more productive work force with lower healthcare costs.

ICCT estimates an upfront investment of about US$4 billion would be needed to reach a 10ppm sulfur standard, plus an annual refining cost of US$1.5 billion, meaning 1.4 cents added per gallon of gasoline. This excludes costs of transport, distribution and storage of low-sulfur gasoline.

The cost of taking a four-cylinder, 1.5-liter petrol engine to European Union standards is only US$360. Doing the same for diesel engines, on the other hand, requires about US$1,400, considering the process involves more complex technologies for air management, fuel injection control, after treatment and system integration.

There is no clear plan from the Indian government for the future of fuel quality regulations in India. The increase in fuel prices gives oil companies an excuse not to invest in cleaner fuels, and regulations will be needed to steer them towards higher standards.

The Powerpoint presentation for the ICCT India  webinar on reducing vehicular emissions can be found here.

Improving fuel quality: Comparing India’s program against global benchmarks from International Council on Clean Transportation


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