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Scrutiny
  
Green and guilt-free mobility
When it comes to mass transportation, green options are being developed aplenty, but almost all are failing the economic viability test. The IIPM Think Tank analyses the economic and social benefit of contemporary machines that will be green, clean and fast – but not necessarily in the same order of priority!
18/02/2010

Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age... one would think that we should have come of age after going through these multiple bouts of evolution. But then, mankind has had the penchant for reinventing itself every now and then.

We have displayed that ability exceptionally well with respect to our transport system. The invention of the wheel started it all. Evolution kept ‘happening’, till the time when the entire connotation of transport took a whole new meaning with the invention of the internal combustion engine (that used petrol and petroleum by-products), which laid the foundation stone of modern transportation and gave birth to a huge population of fuel-guzzlers and carbon-emitting machines. It also gave us the concept of black gold; for which many wars have been fought, apart from the spectre of pollution – that has not only contributed to global warming, but also has been the leading reason for cancer.

In the late 20th century, countries started to re-calculate the negative effect of mass transportation on the environment. The focus on power and speed started getting replaced with a focus on green transportation, at least in policy circles, to an extent that the vision of having green transport systems became no longer confined to a few developed countries (In most developed countries, on an average, transport systems consume between 20-25% of total energy – an issue that is motivating the developed nations faster towards alternative less energy consuming systems). Despite all the hullaballoo about the ecological benefits, the clear fact is that the economic benefits of the so called ‘green’ alternatives are absent, and in many cases, too prohibitive for Third World nations (the costs to implement such eco-friendly systems is beyond logical levels and extraordinarily huge – this is an insurmountable impediment considering that even at the current level, almost all public transport systems, irrespective of which nations we consider, are more or less running on losses).
The last decade saw the growth of numerous green systems. But most of them, by the turn of the decade, did not find takers. The much touted hybrids are a key example. A conservative estimate shows that the sale of hybrid vehicles, after so many years of promotion, constitutes just about 2.9% of total automobile sales. Similarly, usage of vehicles using natural gas (called CNG in some countries) is largely confined to transit buses and a few other modes of public transport. Hydrogen fuelled vehicles, even today, remain limited due to lack of a proper fuel distribution network. Electric vehicles have not caught the customer’s fancy due to high battery costs and recharge issues. Even though auto giants are already working on prototype cars powered by fuel cells like Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf, their time will be tested only when they’re introduced. And the lesser said about the concept of high-speed railways and green air transport systems, the better (even though the bio-fuel based Virgin Galactic airline does stand out in its promise of making the carbon cost of each flight come down to 60% of a conventional aircraft’s).

Strangely, a few initiatives to reduce emissions from current mass transport systems have worked better than the ‘green’ lot, especially considering the fact that oil reserves – by recent estimates – are perhaps never going to get depleted in the near future (or even far, for that matter). In France, pollution-free nuclear electricity has helped trains reduce the carbon emission rate. Researchers are en route to developing more efficient and effective catalytic converters that would further break down the toxicity of vehicle emissions. Auto manufacturers are even focussed on bettering mileages on automobiles with every passing year. For example, as per US Department of Energy data, while the Toyota Landcruiser gave 12 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway in 1985, the 2010 model gives 18 mpg. The Camary is better, giving close to 35 mpg in 2010!

It’s evident that rather than attempting to invest magnanimously in green spheres that have very less or almost no guarantee of succeeding, there’s heavier credence for attempting to improve what can be done in a short time – the mpg example of Toyota being a totem pole. Can the world stand up to that?

By:- Sray Agarwal
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