Waking up to a killer

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According to the World Health Organisation ( who ), spm is the most serious air pollutant on a worldwide basis. It causes the death of 460,000 people each year. In August 1998, the California Air Resources Board ( carb ) declared that particles in diesel emissions are toxic air contaminants. Two months later, California's environmental regulators voted to eliminate the more lenient pollution standards for diesel-powered vehicles, saying that diesel engines will have to meet the same pollution standards as petrol-powered vehicles 2004 onwards. At present, it seems impossible that diesel engines will meet these standards notwithstanding the rapid development of diesel engine designs in the past decade.

Michael Walsh, editor of Car Lines and former air pollution control specialist at the us Environmental Protection Authority ( epa ), points out that the new norms will effectively eliminate light-duty diesel vehicles from California unless there is a significant technological breakthrough. The state accounts for one-tenth of auto sales in the us .

All this has happened at a time when the car industry was moving towards diesel. General Motors ( gm ) Corporation, one of the largest automobile companies of the world, had been depending on diesel engines to improve fuel efficiency, particularly of their larger sport/utility vehicles. John F Smith, chairperson and chief executive of General Motors, was quoted in the New York Times on November 27, 1998, as saying: "It's a major concern coming out of the California regulations. It goes to the fundamentals of what is our long-term strategy for dealing with emissions and so forth.'

Global warming vs urban smog
Carmakers defend their move towards dieselisation by arguing that it is one of the answers to the global warming problem. The best diesel engines at present use 33 per cent less fuel per km than petrol engines, claim auto industry engineers. Carmakers claim they are actually responding to environmental concerns as diesel engines emit up to 20 per cent less carbon dioxide ( co 2 ), the main gas responsible for global warming. They add that dieselisation is a global phenomenon, particularly in Europe, which uses much more diesel than the us . But a study by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency shows that while diesel cars use 20-25 per cent less fuel per km, they emit 15 per cent more co 2 per litre than petrol cars. As a result, the overall effect on co 2 emissions is