E-cars are good, but pollution woes remain

The Government has decided to use e-cars that run on electricity in government work. These cars have batteries like e-rickshaws. These are charged in the home and have a range of up to 300 kilometers which is sufficient for daily urban travels. The use of e-cars will certainly reduce urban pollution because these cars do not burn any fuel and do not emit any carbon. However, this does not solve the problem of pollution in the country. It only transfers the pollution from urban areas to the rural areas where electricity is generated. There are limits to control of pollution by advanced technologies. Ultimately we will have to realise that mother earth cannot sustain unlimited consumption.

I had visited the city of Chicago in the United States in 1971. At that time the air in the city was full of smoke from cars and it was difficult to breath. I went again in 1996. The air was clean. There was no noise or smoke. New technologies of pollution control in the cars had cleaned up the air. Thus technology is often heralded as the way to secure environment-friendly growth. Thinking is that we may sacrifice environment initially, secure economic growth, and then, having secured economic growth, use that money to clean up the environment. There are three problems with this approach, however. One, often the impact of pollution in the “growth” period can be irreversible. Large numbers of plant and fish species in Lake Michigan near Chicago have disappeared.

These cannot be brought back. Two, the emission of unburnt carbon, sulphur and nitrogen from cars had been controlled but the total emissions of carbon has increased along with the number of cars plying on the roads. This increase in carbon emissions is leading to global warming, which has become worse and a bigger threat to the environ ment. Three, much pollution has been shipped overseas. Previously the steel used for the manufacture of the cars was being produced in nearby city of Detroit and pollution was being generated within the United States. Presently steel and cars are being imported from India and China. Thus the pollution has been exported to Chennai and Shanghai. The above example shows that technological advances cannot truly “solve” the problems of environment until man continues to expand his consumption of polluting goods.

True control of pollution requires a reduction in the overall level of consumption. For example, America has developed a culture of owning individual cars. One has to often drive in a personal car  for four to five kilometers to even buy a loaf of bread. Bus services are poor or non-existent. Thus, more cars are being bought and, despite being “clean,” are leading to more carbon emissions.

The solution is to tax cars and subsidise public transport like bus and metros. Similarly, the production of electricity is a major contributor to pollution across the world, including India. Methane gas, which is more polluting than carbon, is being emitted from the Tehri reservoir according to a report of National Environment Engineering Institute, Nagpur. Singrauli in UP has become a virtual furnace because of the large number of thermal power plants established in the area. The use of e-cars means that the requirement of electricity will increase and more pollution will be created from Tehri and Singrauli.

The monthly consumption of electricity in the home of an industrialist of Mumbai was Rs 74 lakhs due to luxuries, such as heated swimming pools and air-conditioned ballrooms. We cannot conserve our environment if more numbers of billionaires start consuming such large amounts of electricity. We must introduce much more progressive pricing of electricity and petroleum. Consumption of less than 100 units per person may be priced at about Rs 6 as at present, consumption above 250 units should be priced at, say, Rs 20 per unit. Similarly, cars of more than 1 liter engine capacity should be required to pay double the rate for petroleum in comparison to smaller cars.

Houses of more than 200 square feet area per person should be subject to higher rates of property taxes. That will lead to less consumption. This reduction will not lead to lower growth though. The universally accepted measure of economic development nowadays is the Human Development Index that is based on health, education and income. Less use of electricity guzzling air-conditioners and petroleum guzzling SUVs will not lead to a reduction in health, education or income of the people. The increased collection of taxes should be used to establish public transport systems like busses and metros, and to conserve forests and rivers so that the atmospheric temperature is controlled and there is less need of the use of air-conditioners. The purchase of more busses and metro coaches will add exactly the same amount to our GDP as the purchase of SUVs.

The second step is to secure growth in areas that are suitable to our natural resource endowment. We will deplete the water resources and cause pollution from diesel pumping sets if we try to grow paddy in the dry areas of Haryana. The same growing of paddy in Kerala will not create pollution. Haryana, therefore, should grow bajra, which is suited to its land and water availability. The same logic applies to India as a country. We do not have coal or uranium to produce large amounts of electricity, we do not have huge reserves of iron ore to produce SUVs, and we do not have land to make 12 lane highways.

We will over exploit our limited natural resources if we try to compete with Australia in the consumption of iron, compete with Saudi Arabia in the consumption of petroleum, or compete with the United States in making highways. We have a huge manpower though. We should therefore use manpower as the prime mover of economic growth. We should focus on the production of music, cinema, health care in hospitals and university education instead of manufacturing. The production of these services adds the same amounts to the GDP as the production of SUVs and air-conditioners. Environment-friendly growth model requires steeply progressive pricing of resources and refocus of our growth strategy on the services sector.

The move of the Government to use e-cars is welcome. But this is tinkering with the problem. Moreover, this puts the burden on the hapless poor people while providing relief to the urban people. It is iniquitous. The Government must work out a strategy so that we live and grow within the resources provide to us by mother earth.

The author was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru.

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