A breath of fresh air

A breath of fresh air

Government plans to introduce a carbon emission tax in September highlight South Africa’s generally poor air quality. STUART MOIR investigates this environmental problem and the transport industry’s level of culpability.

South Africa may be one of the few African countries that could contribute towards mitigating climate change. This, as the country braces itself for the introduction of a carbon tax on new vehicles. The new tax will range from 0.6% to 4.1%, depending on the level of a vehicle’s emissions. Initially, it will apply to passenger cars only; but the intention is for it to be extended to commercial vehicles once ongoing negotiations on carbon emission standards are concluded.

The primary objective of the proposed new tax is to ensure that South Africa’s overall vehicle fleet becomes more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly. This comes in the wake of a significant increase in urban traffic resulting from our country’s unprecedented economic growth over the past decade; a phenomenon verified by ongoing annual increases in national fuel consumption.

Transport-related emissions have been identified as the most important issue to emerge from the national air pollution debate. Until 2008, there was no requirement for new vehicles sold to meet any homologated maximum emissions limits. However, since January 2008, all new vehicles sold have been required to meet Euro 2 emission limits as a minimum standard. This was considered a vital first step in reducing the transport sector’s negative impact on air quality. As of 1 January 2010, all new commercial vehicles are required to meet Euro 2 emission standards as well.

Prior to January 2008, some of the vehicles sold did, in fact, conform to European emissions limits; even in the absence of local legislation. These vehicles were either imported from markets with regulations already in place, or were manufactured locally to comply with the standards concerned (since this was seen to be the only technical option for those particular vehicle models). Yet, a vast majority of vehicles sold before 2008 did not comply with the standards, particularly in the entry-level market segment, and a significant percentage of the current truck parc still doesn’t comply. Hence, in general, the majority of vehicles currently on our roads are considered to be high emitters. In addition to this, there is no specific requirement to maintain these vehicles to any emission level limit.

It therefore goes without saying that – unless specific interventions are made – poorly maintained vehicles in South Africa will continue to outnumber well-maintained ones, polluting the air we breathe and impacting negatively on our environment regardless. By implication, this tends to suggest that, in South Africa, even new emissions-controlled vehicles will not be as well maintained as is common practice in the developed world. To complicate matters even further, although the implementation of new vehicle technology significantly reduces vehicle emissions, the capacity of any technological innovation to continue impacting positively on emissions levels sustainably relies on fuel quality. Without the enabling qualities of specific fuel requirements, a vehicle’s technological potential for lower emissions will inevitably be undermined.

A breath of fresh airIt has already been widely acknowledged that some changes in fuel quality will have definite benefits in terms of public health. One example of this is that the reduction of sulphur levels in diesel fuel has been proven to minimise secondary pollutant levels. But back to the environment: carbon dioxide (CO2) – a by-product of the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels (petrol and diesel) – is recognised as one of the primary greenhouse gases contributing towards climate change; and the rate at which any vehicle produces CO2 is is directly related to its fuel consumption. Consequently, a vehicle’s rate of CO2 production is a function of its engine’s efficiency. For that reason, vehicle manufacturers worldwide continue to work hard on improving this particular aspect of each of their products.

In order to enhance engine efficiency, vehicles need to run on high-quality fuels.  Some of South Africa’s diesel is manufactured at six refineries country-wide, with the balance imported. Yet the growth in our country’s diesel consumption during recent years has been significantly higher than the growth in petrol consumption, averaging 8% per annum. Here lies one of the many anomalies we face.

Fuels in South Africa are required to meet the regulated quality “ex-nozzle”, which means that at the point of sale or supply, the fuel demonstrates strict industry quality control standards. These determine the specifications and standards for fuels that may be sold for consumption, as regulated by the Department of Energy (DoE). The diesel grades permitted must conform to the South African National Standard for Automotive Diesel Fuel, issued by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). There are strict industry quality-control procedures in place to ensure that point-of-sale diesel complies with these standards. Furthermore, fuel manufacturers must adhere to product exchange specifications that are even more conservative in respect of the slightest change affecting product storage and distribution.

Currently, the country’s specifications allow for two grades of diesel suitable for use in compression-ignition engines, even at high speed: standard grade and low sulphur grade. In 2006, diesel sulphur levels were reduced from 3 000 parts per million (PPM) to 500 PPM. As a result of this reduction in sulphur levels, extended oil-drain service levels became possible in most diesel engines. However, low sulphur grade diesel (50 PPM sulphur) has limited availability in South Africa, being sourced predominantly from synthetic fuel manufactured in Secunda, with the shortfall met by other refineries and imports. This represents an obvious cause for concern, particularly in view of the increasing use of low-sulphur diesel technology in new passenger cars, as well as the fact that truck engines above Euro 2 standards cannot perform to maximum emissions efficiency.

Government regulations state that only new vehicles that are compatible with local fuels should be sold by vehicle suppliers, and it is possible for suppliers to modify European vehicles to ensure they meet these requirements. However, in the absence of the necessary improvements to fuel quality and availability, South African operators cannot realistically expect to benefit from environmentally-related Euro 3, 4 and 5 vehicle specifications. As a result, local vehicle and truck manufacturers and importers are reluctant to offer customers models with the very latest Euro 4- and 5-related engine features.

In all fairness, major local oil companies have developed different additive packages to enhance fuel properties, allowing fuel to perform above the legislated requirements. Also, the South African motor and oil industries are involved in extensive research and negotiations to fast-track the introduction of the new fuels locally by 2012 at the latest. Nevertheless, there is a heavy overhead cost implicit in upgrading many local refineries to meet European specifications. Typically, in order to address diesel component specifications alone, fuel companies would inevitably need to build new de-sulphurising units, which would cost several millions of Rands. In the medium-to-long-term, therefore, the selling price of diesel would undoubtedly increase – although it could take up to four years for the necessary equipment to be installed. Although the South African economy is supposed to be in tentative recovery mode, this is a daunting prospect.

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