By Faizan Arif
RECENTLY in April this year, E-rickshaws were introduced for the first time in Kashmir Valley. The chargeable battery-driven auto-rickshaws ply from Gawkadal to Bohri Kadal area of Downtown Srinagar. Ease of commute has been the overstated benefit of these newbies on roads. Popular opinions say, the more the merrier, given that such public transport can reduce traffic jams, help decongest public transport and make navigating in peak hours very easy. However, the most important element of its introduction in the valley has to be its potential to mitigate air pollution. In the face of an impending global climate crisis, e-rickshaws in the valley need to be seen as more than just another vehicle on the streets.
Understanding the science behind it is going to facilitate our appreciation of it as. Take this:
When carbon-based fuels are burned, incomplete combustion causes the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants, including particulate matter (PM) (aerosols), which include particles that can cool or heat the Earth’s climate by reflecting or absorbing the radiation of the sun. A particular type of PM, black carbon (BC), survives relatively for a short period (one week) in the atmosphere but absorbs vast amounts of solar radiation. Solid fuel burning, especially indoors, and high-emitting diesel engines, emit high levels of BC which contributes to climate warming.
The high levels of BC pollution in urban air in developing countries are also attributed to polluting industries and the operation of older vehicles. Global temperatures are estimated to have been excessively warmed by more than 15% due to it. Evidence from modelling studies suggests that climate change is likely to increase ozone concentrations, a major cause of respiratory illnesses in urban areas. To protect current and future generations from the health effects of fossil fuel burning, it is essential to reduce emissions as quickly as possible.
Researchers say combining policies that address local air pollution and global climate change will provide enhanced climate change mitigation benefits. Medium-term efforts to control air pollution will provide additional benefits to long-term strategies that aim to curb climate change. Short-term reductions in BC can potentially delay the impact of global warming by approximately 10 years, allowing researchers and policymakers to do more research and step up their efforts. As far as vehicle interventions go, reducing emissions from super-emitting diesel trucks and buses is the most attractive option.
Poor air quality is causing people to become ill and die prematurely, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Air pollution is linked to an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization. When indoor air quality is considered, that number rises by an estimated 2.9 to 4.3 million deaths a year, according to The Lancet Commission.
High PM2.5 concentrations, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, are a significant health risk in densely populated urban areas in most low- and middle-income countries. It has been linked to both acute and short-term illnesses, and increased rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, asthma, pneumonia, and other health problems over time. PM2.5, which is largely caused by carbon burning and exudes from power plant smokestacks, vehicle exhaust systems, and open fires, was identified as the sixth highest risk factor for death worldwide in a 2018 report by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
In addition, as a growing body of evidence indicates, COVID-19 patients may experience worse outcomes from long-term exposure to air pollution. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Public Health Alliance reported that cities with higher levels of air pollution also had higher mortality rates with more severe symptoms among COVID-19 patients.
Air pollution linked with cognitive decline and dementia
As per the opinion (a 25 July 2022 report) from the authoritative Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), science advisers to the UK government, have said for the first time that dementia and a declining mental ability in older people around the world may be caused by air pollution.
As a result of reviewing nearly 70 studies, the group concluded there was an association between exposure to air pollutants and “an acceleration of the decline in cognitive function often associated with ageing, and with the risk of developing dementia.”
Due to a scarcity of investigative studies, the committee wasn’t able to estimate how many older people had proven to have mental decline following exposure to air pollution. However, according to a 2018 study of Londoners, air pollution may be responsible for roughly 60,000 of the 209,600 new cases of dementia in the UK every year.
The formation of acid rain is caused by elevated levels of sulphur and nitric acids in the atmosphere due to emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxides (SO2). Water molecules in the atmosphere combine with Sulphur dioxide and Nitrogen oxides, emitted from industries and vehicles, leading to the formation of mild sulfuric and nitric acids which fall back on land as acid rain.
In highly industrialized areas and urban areas with high car traffic, factories and automobiles emit high levels of gaseous emissions every day. As a result, these areas experience exceedingly high amounts of acid rain.
Acid rain is very harmful to agriculture, plants, and animals. It washes away all nutrients which are required for the growth and survival of plants. It causes respiratory issues in animals and humans. Aquatic ecosystems are adversely affected by acid rain that falls into rivers and ponds. It damages the buildings and monuments made up of stones and metals.
Situation in Jammu and Kashmir
Despite Srinagar’s reputation for pristine environments, scientists from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) and the University of Kashmir found that air quality declines drastically during the winter in Srinagar.
As per Times of India, Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, Former Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University, now Vice-Chancellor at IUST Awantipora, and one of the authors of the study said, “The number of cars on the roads needs to be decreased to check the emission of fossil fuels. Every year, J-K adds up to 1.5 lakh vehicles. We are forced to use our own vehicles because of the lack of a very efficient transport system.”
In 2018, according to the figures for 2016, Srinagar’s air was declared the 10th most polluted in the world by the World Health Organization.
“From November onwards, we tend to have air quality issues. Air quality remains largely within permissible limits during summer and spring, but during autumn and winter, it’s very polluted. During the cold months, our air is only clean when we have precipitation episodes (rain or snow). At this time, breathing Srinagar’s air is equal to smoking 40 cigarettes a day,” Mudasir Ahmad Bhat, an environmental scientist, and researcher based at the University of Kashmir said in a conversation with Rising Kashmir.
As per ‘Preliminary Study on Air Quality of Srinagar, (J&K), India’ by Mehvish Sheikh & Ishtiyaq Ahmed Naja, published in June 2018, there is a higher concentration of NO2 at Lal chowk which is a commercial area and vehicular emission could be one of the reasons for a higher value of NO2.
The concentration of NO2 varied from 17.97µg/m3 during November to a maximum of 19.01µg/m3 during January, which is clearly higher than the permissible limit of 10 µg/m3.
The current WHO guideline value of 10 µg/m3 (annual mean) was set to protect the public from the health effects of gaseous nitrogen dioxide.
As per another study ‘Winter Burst of Pristine Kashmir Valley Air’ by Zainab Q. Hakim, Gufran Beig, Srinivas Reka, Shakil A. Romshoo & Irfan Rashid, published in February 2018, indicates that the air quality of Srinagar deteriorates significantly, particularly during winter, where the level of PM2.5 touches a peak value of 348 μg/m³ against the Indian permissible limit of 60 μg/m³.
It revealed that the annual PM2.5 emissions are highest from coal burning which is around 1246.5 tons/year followed by the emissions from vehicular combustion which is 220.5 tons/year, and the least are the emissions from fuel wood burning which is around 8.06 tons/year.
A recent study on the effect of vehicular pollution on the ambient concentrations of particulate matter and carbon dioxide in Srinagar City, by Nikhil Savio, Farooq Ahmad Lone, Javeed Iqbal Ahmad Bhat, Nayar Afaq Kirmani and Nageena Nazir, published in April 2022, revealed that throughout the year from June 2019 to May 2020, CO2 concentration was seen to be increasing in Srinagar city.
On a monthly basis, the maximum average concentration of CO2 was found during December and Shalimar recorded the highest carbon dioxide value of 637.57 ppm.
The recorded maximum average values at other locations were 622.33 ppm, 614.40 ppm, 592.23 ppm and 579.33 ppm at Jehangir Chowk, Dalgate, Parimpora and Pantha Chowk, respectively.
On the other hand, the maximum average concentration in spring reached 626.86 ppm in Jehangir Chowk and the minimum average for the same season was recorded in Shalimar (592.06 ppm). The average value of all the sites during the spring season was 609.29 ppm.
This is clearly higher than the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide, 414.72 ppm recorded in 2021 based on analysis from NOAA’s Global Monitoring Lab.
In the face of climate change and air pollution, e-transport is a promising answer
The experts suggest various solutions that can help reduce the concentration of particulate matter (pollutants) in the air, including proper road macadamization, dumping of agricultural waste, and using clean energy sources instead of coal and wood. Additionally, scientists recommend regulating fuel adulteration by petrol pump owners and introducing cleaner alternatives like CNG and battery-powered vehicles.
The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) released a paper in April 2018 on the pollution caused by autos. According to it, approximately 1200 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 4 tonnes of NOx and 0.5 tonnes of PM10 are emitted from the total fleet of auto rickshaws plying in the city of Bengaluru per day, and auto rickshaws contribute to 0.44 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year. Switching to electric autos could result in a reduction of carbon emissions by 0.11 million tonnes per year, PM10 emissions by 114.5 million tonnes per year, and NOx emissions by 37.6 million tonnes per year.
A rickshaw powered by electricity requires little maintenance and is cheaper to operate than one powered by petrol or compressed natural gas. In North India, where deteriorating air quality levels have rendered urban areas uninhabitable, the emission-free e-rickshaw is being hailed as the humble agent of change for a cleaner, less fossil fuel-dependent future.
While e-rickshaws are behind the auto-rickshaws from a technological standpoint, they are more energy-efficient and less polluting. The use of e-rickshaws could reduce the consumption of fuel oil for passenger transportation, which is both economically and environmentally beneficial.
People in Kashmir have suffered various times when there has been a shortage of petrol and diesel in the Valley. Had there been e-rickshaws, people would have been less dependent on fossil fuels.
Electric buses eliminate both CO2 and black carbon emissions, so switching from local buses to soot-free vehicles can be an effective carbon reduction strategy. As per a Forbes report, Shenzhen, China, has switched to an electric bus fleet and now has over 16,000 electric buses and 22,000 Electric Taxis, reducing not only pollution but also noise. The other report suggests the switch from diesel buses to electric is expected to achieve an estimated reduction in CO2 emissions of 48% and reductions in pollutants, including particulate matter.
The Top Five most effective interventions that improve both health, by reducing PM2.5, and climate, by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report, Air Pollution Interventions: Seeking the Intersection Between Climate and Health, are:
1) Replacing coal with renewable sources of energy for total power production;
2) Replacing diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles with electric vehicles in both the public and private sector;
3) Eliminating uncontrolled diesel emissions;
4) Preventing crop burning; and
5) Preventing forest fires.
I recently talked to an e-rickshaw owner in Lucknow who claimed the cost of the vehicle to be around 1.5 lakh, which on a single full charge of 7-8 hrs, covered a distance of 80 – 100kms. His monthly earnings were about 10 thousand. The vehicle had a maximum speed of 30kms per hour.
There is a need to increase the number of e-rickshaws already introduced in J&K earlier this year across Jammu and Kashmir. However, E-rickshaws’ low speed can add to traffic jams in the already congested cities of Jammu and Srinagar. So, proper planning is required to ensure hassle-free movement of vehicles and at the same time shift to these eco-friendly vehicles.
The bottom line remains that electric cars, trains, buses, and rickshaws are essential for achieving cleaner air in urban centres and can contribute to the mitigation of climate change as well. They’re ultra-efficient and emit no exhaust. Also, It will require clean electricity to power them.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
- The author is an independent weather forecaster, better known as “Kashmir Weather” across social media
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