Could the Ve­hic­u­lar Emis­sions Scheme (VES) lead to a para­dox of cleaner cars which are less ef­fi­cient?


THE new Ve­hic­u­lar Emis­sions Scheme (VES), which kicks in from Jan­uary 1, 2018 is clearly more strin­gent than the Car­bon Emis­sions-based Ve­hi­cle Scheme (CEVS). And by virtue of that, it is a su­pe­rior scheme in­so­far as im­prov­ing air qual­ity here is con­cerned.

But will this goal be at some ex­pense to global warm­ing? This doubt arises be­cause the VES sets a very high bar for ni­tro­gen ox­ides and par­tic­u­late mat­ter – pol­lu­tants which diesel en­gines tend to emit more of.

As a re­sult, diesel mod­els are more likely to end up fac­ing tax sur­charges. This would be a stark con­trast to the cur­rent state of af­fairs, where they en­joy size­able tax re­bates un­der the CEVS.

So, it would not be a sur­prise if diesel en­gines be­come far less pop­u­lar from next year. Al­ready, the taxi op­er­a­tors, who have long favoured diesels, have been switch­ing to petrol-elec­tric hy­brids in the last 18 months or so.

The thing is, while diesel en­gines emit more ni­tro­gen ox­ides and par­tic­u­late mat­ter,

they pro­duce less car­bon diox­ide than petrol equiv­a­lents – in fact, up to 30% less. If diesel mod­els be­come less vi­able be­cause of the VES, Sin­ga­pore’s ve­hic­u­lar car­bon foot­print could en­large.

And that in turn may af­fect the Repub­lic’s com­mit­ment to re­duce green­house gases by 16% by 2020, in ac­cor­dance to the Paris Agree­ment.

Since trans­port ranks as the third largest car­bon pro­ducer here, ac­count­ing for 15% of to­tal emis­sions, a shift away from car­bon-ef­fi­cient diesel fuel is likely to af­fect the coun­try’s abil­ity to meet this tar­get, which is less than three years away.

In set­ting the pa­ram­e­ters for the VES, Sin­ga­pore is giv­ing a clear sig­nal that it is pri­ori­tis­ing hu­man health over health of the planet. The de­ci­sion is un­der­stand­able, given the coun­try’s in­abil­ity to meet the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s lim­its on fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter (a pol­lu­tant which can cause ir­repara­ble dam­age to the res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem) de­spite many at­tempts.

This may partly have to do with Sin­ga­pore’s pre­ma­ture im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Euro 4 stan­dard for diesel en­gines back in 2006. The Ja­panese brands, which ac­counted for the bulk of diesel com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles here, could not meet the dead­line. This led to their sud­den ab­sence from the mar­ket, which in turn led to the COE for com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles to crash to $2 for six con­sec­u­tive ten­ders.

As a re­sult, fleet own­ers re­newed the COE on their age­ing vans, trucks and buses – sim­ply be­cause it was so cheap to do so. This ef­fec­tively de­layed ef­forts to clean up the diesel fleet by 10 years. It did not help that par­tic­u­late fil­ters were not manda­tory for Euro 4 en­gines. Also, boot­leg diesel of du­bi­ous qual­ity was widely avail­able at so­called white pumps.

Since then, the Gov­ern­ment has been in­ten­si­fy­ing ef­forts to clean up the diesel fleet, such as rolling out the Early Turnover Scheme to per­suade fleet own­ers to scrap their old, pol­lu­tive ve­hi­cles for the lat­est mod­els. The Volk­swa­gen scan­dal has also made Sin­ga­pore – along with many other coun­tries – wary of diesel tech­nol­ogy. Un­der real-world con­di­tions, and driven un­der load, diesel ve­hi­cles tend to pol­lute a lot more than when they are tested on the bench.

But Sin­ga­pore ig­nores the im­pact of cli­mate change at its own peril. Be­ing an is­land state, even a mar­ginal rise in sea level can have dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects. So, it has to do its part to keep a tighter rein on car­bon emis­sions.

To this end, the coun­try has re-in­tro­duced diesel duty at the pumps. This is in­tended to en­cour­age more ju­di­cious us­age of the fuel. But at merely 10 cents a litre, the duty is un­likely to in­flu­ence us­age pat­terns sig­nif­i­cantly. It should ideally be raised, grad­u­ally.

Sin­ga­pore will also in­tro­duce a car­bon tax in 2019. At be­tween $10 and $20 per tonne, it is meant to nudge heavy car­bon pro­duc­ers such as power sta­tions and in­dus­tries to­wards higher en­ergy ef­fi­ciency.

But back to the VES. Its puni­tive stance to­wards diesel aside, the scheme is likely to per­suade car buy­ers to pick more ef­fi­cient mod­els. This in turn should lead to lower car­bon in­ten­sity. For in­stance, full elec­tric mod­els, which are likely to qual­ify for the top-tier tax re­bate of $20,000, are deemed to be the low­est car­bon emit­ters.

Alas, elec­tric cars will still be too costly for the ma­jor­ity of mo­torists even af­ter the re­bate. At the same time, small-dis­place­ment tur­bocharged en­gines which are car­bon-lite are likely to be pe­nalised with sur­charges be­cause of their rel­a­tively high ni­tro­gen ox­ide and par­tic­u­late mat­ter read­ings. Hence they may give way to mod­els which are cleaner but which emit more CO2.

So, let’s hope pol­i­cy­mak­ers have done their math. Oth­er­wise, Sin­ga­pore will not be able to meet its com­mit­ment to the Paris Agree­ment. While this may have a neg­li­gi­ble im­pact on global green­house-gas pro­duc­tion, no coun­try’s con­tri­bu­tion is too small when it comes to the cli­mate.


Fully elec­tric ve­hi­cles are the low­est car­bon emit­ters un­der the VES, but they’ll still be too ex­pen­sive even af­ter a $20k re­bate.

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