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Clearing the Air – Lessons from California

Policy Pulse
Publish Date: Nov 12 2015 7:22PM | Updated Date: Nov 16 2015 11:53AM

Clearing the Air – Lessons from Californiaphoto by Hrishikesh bhatt

Amidst all the excitement around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high profile visit to the United States – especially the Silicon Valley and facebook office - no one seems to have paid much attention to one crucial deal on environment the country struck there. 


In the meeting with California Governor Jerry Brown, India hit a deal on sharing technology to reduce air pollution and combat climate change with California, which is a world leader and has been known for its ground-breaking environmental effort to clean its air.


 The Governor’s office says that one state in India would be chosen to share the technology, which they used to curb air pollution levels. This would be a pilot & if successful, it could be replicated in rest of the country as well. With the pollution level rising in India with each passing day, this step by the government could go a long way in cleaning up the air in the country.



Pollution levels are rising way above accepted limits in the country - India has surpassed the pollution levels of the smog capital of the world – Beijing. Of the 30 cities in the world with the worst pollution, 15 are in India. So bad is the situation in Delhi especially, that the Supreme Court had to step in recently – to levy taxes on trucks entering the city.


Delhi pollution levels are 15 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended limit, which is the worst outdoor air pollution of any city worldwide. In fact, 4 out of 10 children in the national capital suffer from lung problems due to the rising air pollution. According to the Government’s own admission 35,000 people have lost their lives in the last decade due to air pollution & 80 people die every day in Delhi alone due to the toxic air you & I breathe everyday.


In many ways India is going through what California did 40 years ago. The region had several episodes of severe air pollution during 1940-70 but today it has been able to reduce black carbon emissions by 90% while its population increased by 100%.


In the 70's California was in the same situation as India is today. Just like India today, a large increase in pollution, traffic, coal burning industries led to massive increase in pollution in the south-western American state. But due to prompt action & stricter laws – like tighter emission standards and strict implementation, California has been significantly able to improve the air quality. In fact, California’s laws are known to be the toughest & are way ahead of other states in the US too.


Introduction of strict laws like the Clean Air Act – significantly helped improving air quality. California has its own agency which is the air resources board and they also have air quality management districts which take care of stationary sources of pollution.


The state has the authority over motor vehicles and the over arching authority is the federal act - which the Clean Air Act. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopts ambient-air quality standards based on health and aesthetic considerations. These standards establish a goal which the control authorities try to meet by establishing legal maximum levels of emissions for polluting activities of the community. After the standards are set, the states need to present a plan on how to achieve these goals. And if they repeatedly fall in non-attainment category then they can even receive federal funding cuts which can affect the State heavily.


Even in India we have laws like the Clean Air Act but it lacks teeth & cities or states can hardly be held accountable if there’s non attainment. For example – under the Clean Air Act of the US the targets are set by the federal government & the states have to meet those targets. If they fail to do so then they may face sanctions or federal cuts. California though forges it’s own laws which are formed after consulting all stakeholders like business, citizens, environmentalists, government officials, CARB, SCAQMD. Whereas in India though the Central Govt can set targets for states, there’s no punitive action possible in case of non attainment.



One of the ways by which California has been able to deal with this problem is by checking vehicular pollution. The transport sector is one of the biggest polluters, contributing 40 per cent to 50 per cent of pollutant gases. Vehicles have grown from 20 million in 1991 to 140 million by 2011 and the fleet is projected to grow to more than 400 million vehicles by 2030 in India alone . Along with this rapid growth in vehicles has come a rapid growth in emissions, particularly from trucks in urban areas. Vehicle emissions have become a substantial contributor to outdoor air pollution in India, bringing critical public health consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that of the 67 risk factors studied in their Global Burden of Disease project, outdoor air pollution ranked 5th in mortality and 7th in health burden in India, contributing to 627,000 deaths and 17.7 million healthy years of life lost in 2010.


California demonstrated that economic growth can be decoupled from air polluting emissions. For 40 years, despite claims that it would destroy the automotive industry, kCARB has pushed cleaner vehicle standards, and today, cars in California are 99 per cent cleaner and diesels are 98 per cent cleaner than they were in the 1970s, while the vehicle industry continues to flourish.


 In the 1990s, CARB pushed clean fuel standards forward – despite false claims from the oil industry that they would lead to gas price spikes and cripple consumers – and today, California has the cleanest fuel in the world. California’s clean fuel standards are ingle- handedly responsible for reducing air pollution emissions by 15 per cent and cancer isks from vehicle pollution by 40 per cent – for pennies per gallon. In fact, the average Californian spends significantly less money on household electricity and gasoline than the average American, and California gets twice the economic output for every unit of electricity that it uses than the rest of the country does. California’s successes can provide elements of a template for India. The costs of emissions control are outweighed many times over by large public health benefits, improved crop yields, and job creation.


Since California first began regulating vehicle emissions 50 years ago, the state’s economy has grown twentyfold, from $100 billion to $2 trillion.


Another reason why California has been successful in reducing transport emissions, even as the vehicle fleet grew, is because tight regulations for cleaner fuels. In July 2003, the California Air Resources Board approved a 15 parts-per-million (ppm) sulphur limit for diesel fuel used in on-road and off-road engines. The previous diesel fuel sulphur limit had been 500 ppm.


The phase-in of the 15 ppm standard began in June 2006 and was fully implemented for motor vehicles and off-road diesel engines in September 2006. Beginning in January 2007, the standard also applied to harbour craft and intrastate locomotives. With the implementation of the cleaner diesel fuel, there have been no reported problems with its use, and staff estimates that overall direct diesel PM emissions have been reduced by about 25 per cent.


India is currently following Bharat Standard – III and Bharat Standard IV, these are basically emission standards set by the Government to regulate the pollutants coming out of vehicles, BS-IV for thirteen cities and BS IV for the rest of the country. The standards which India is following are equivalent to to Euro II & Euro IV level. Currently they are at EURO VI, which means that we are at least 15-20 years behind the rest  of the world.


In large metropolitan cities in India, fuel can have 50 parts per million of sulphur and for the rest of the rest of the country it’s 350 parts per million. Whereas Europe allows only 10 parts per million, so you can imagine by how many years India is lagging behind.


According to many environmentalists having two standards leads to immense problems like vehicles which follow two different standards can enter a city like Delhi, thus rendering the whole exercise of a higher fuel efficiency useless. The industry is also apprehensive. They say moving to a Euro VI standard in fuel & engine technology may not be easy as it can lead a huge spike in costs. But environmentalists don’t agree, and even the California experience shows us otherwise. For example, when CARB adopted the 15 ppm diesel sulphur limit in 2003, eight of the 12 large refineries in California reported that capital expenditures to produce low-sulphur diesel fuel would be minimal. 


Based on survey responses, staff estimated that refiners would incur capital expenditures of approximately $170 to $250 million to comply with the low-sulphur diesel requirements.


 A study by Hart Energy and Math Pro, commissioned by the International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT), estimated the total cost of upgrading India’s refineries to produce diesel with less than 10ppm of sulphur at $4.2 billion dollars, or 0.9 to 1.1 ¢ per litre. According to the 12th Plan Working Group on the Petroleum and Natural Gas Sector, the planned public sector investments in refining over 2012–2017 was 88,211 crore, or about  $14.7 billion. Overall investment by public oil companies was anticipated to be $26 billion over the same period.



The California experience demonstrates that technologies to improve engine emissions and to distil ultra-low sulphur fuels (ULSF) are available and can be implemented successfully on a large scale. The California example demonstrates that these technologies can accomplish massive reductions (>90 per cent) in air pollution. Sulfur levels in fuels used in vehicles play an important role in defining the emissions. The efficiency of tailpipe treatment devices depend heavily on the sulphur content of the fuels. These devices work with their optimal efficiencies when provided with fuels withULSF, i.e., sulphur content of 10 ppm or less. Their optimal performance can drastically reduce PM and NOx emissions from vehicles.


More importantly, California has demonstrated that such drastic reductions in air pollution can be accomplished without slowing down economic development.


In India the cost of cleaning up emissions at the refinery and the individual vehicle probably run into tens of billions of dollars. The benefits for human health and agriculture productivity could reach hundreds of billions of dollars. There is a large potential to drastically reduce diesel particulate matter (PM) emissions as well as emissions of NOx from diesel and petrol vehicles by implementing stricter vehicle emission standards and fuel quality standards. They are referred to as Bharat Stage I (BS-I) to Bharat Stage VI (BS-VI). Much of India is currently at BS-III. The BS-IV to -VI standards correspond approximately to Euro IV to VI standards followed in the European Union.



The Union Environment Minister in an interview recently said that they ‘want to move to the EURO VI norms & that transport ministry has been talking to the auto industry for a solution. The auto industry manufactures EURO VI norms cars in India and send them elsewhere. Why can't they provide such cars here?’ But for that the Government needs to be pro- active & talk the industry into leapfrogging to better standards. Without further delay it should mandate the refineries to upgrade their facilities and to supply ultra low sulphur (10 ppm) fuel known as BS-V fuel. Admittedly this is earlier than the agenda recommended in the Auto Fuel Vision and Policy 2025 Report. But as far as Green House gas emissions is concerned that’s another story. In its targets presented to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change the government has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 33-35 per cent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. For this, India has to ensure about 40 per cent of its electricity comes from non fossil fuel sources. India will also increase its forest cover to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. These emission intensity-reduction targets and adaptation to climate change will require about $2.5 trillion, as well as an array of technologies.


 However, this is an ambitious and a costly plan, which would cost an estimated 2.5 trillion dollars. The Indian Government would need the support of the developed nations to go ahead with this plan. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar also recently urged the developed world to own up responsibility, as they have historically reaped the benefits of industrialization and are responsible for over 60% contribution to green house gas emissions and vacate carbon space for  developing countries like India. The environment minister has even asked the developed world to take responsibility and vacate carbon space for countries like India. But to achieve this goal India would need generous financial assistance and transfer of sophisticated green technology from the western countries. India has also demanded the developing countries by delivering on the Green Climate Fund (GCF) promised by them to deal with climate change. Green Climate Fund is only talked about and not materialised. The developed world has committed itself $100 billion per year by 2020 but that still needs to be done.


The Green Climate Fund was set up under the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2010 and developed countries had committed to raising $100 billion each year by 2020 to help developing countries deal with climate change. But according to a report by the Center for Science & Environment as compared to India, the United States climate action will not lead to real emission cuts and its target to reduce global warming causing gases by 26-28% by 2030 will have no impact on lifestyle of an average American. CSE shows that US President Barack Obama’s clean energy plan will not drive American economy to low carbon growth. By 2030 the US will occupy 17.25% of the carbon atmospheric space with just four percent of the world’s population.


Even though California may be a good example to follow as it has been a world leader in cutting environmental, especially air pollution, and there’s a lot India can learn from it as far as climate change and cutting green house gas emissions are concerned, many argue that it is the western world which must lead as that would be the ethical thing to do. But what we must not forget in this argument is that the earth belongs to all of us and so does the responsibility to clean up.