Transport is among the biggest contributors to global warming, presently accounting for around 13 percent of total carbon emissions in India. Going forward, vehicle activity is expected to grow rapidly, increasing 3-3.5 times between 2020 and 2050.
Without significant policy interventions, this would translate into transport-related emissions increasing faster than emissions from other carbon-intensive sectors. Thus, decarbonising the transport sector is crucial for India to move towards net-zero emissions by 2050.
In India, around 65 percent of freight and 90 percent of passenger traffic takes place by road. Thus, decarbonisation efforts have focused on reducing emissions from road transport through technological improvements such as enhanced fuel efficiency and promotion of alternative fuels. Increased fuel efficiency driven by stiff regulatory policies, particularly in passenger cars, have already had positive impacts.
The promotion of electric vehicles (EVs) under The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) is the recent big move towards pushing for decarbonisation of road transport. There seems to be a widespread recognition of electric mobility as an important tool in decarbonising transport. However, is the present policy focus adequate?
The EVs have already seen encouraging uptake among two-wheelers and three-wheelers as these segments are considered easier-to-penetrate since they involve short-distance trips. However, they may not be a cost-effective solution for all segments.
Prior studies have found that their mass adoption in easier-to-transition segments could lead to 20-30 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. However, the actual benefits will depend on the transition to clean energy sources in the power sector. A recent study by IIT-Bombay found that without green energy sources, the EVs could increase carbon emissions by 7-26 percent in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region by 2050.
Another challenge for the EVs is that most of the emission comes from segments which cannot be easily electrified, such as long-distance buses and heavy-duty trucks (HDVs). The HDVs alone are responsible for around 55 percent of the energy consumption from road transport.
While the recent inclusion of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and hydrogen as automotive fuels are encouraging for heavy duty segments, they have their own issues. The LNG is import dependent and not carbon zero, while currently hydrogen’s availability is negligible with many uncertainties regarding its future costs and relevant production pathways.
Deep decarbonisation rests on identifying cost-effective solutions for the harder-to-abate road segments. One way to do this is to shift long distance passenger and freight movement to railways. Rail movement is associated with around five and two-fold lower CO2 emissions for passenger and freight transport, respectively, in comparison to trucks.
With the target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2030, the Indian Railways is also ideally suited to play a key role in sustainable transportation. The National Transport Development Policy Committee had proposed an increase in rail investment from 0.4 percent to 1.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030. Furthermore, the National Rail Plan has laid out an investment roadmap which could significantly boost railway capacity, including construction of dedicated freight corridors and high-speed rail. Moreover, the Railways will also need better marketing policies and more competitive tariffs, especially for its freight business.
The logistics sector is also characterised by obsolete vehicles and fragmented markets, leading to poor fuel economy, wasteful trips, and overloading. Streamlining logistics operations could lead to significant emission reductions. This will require investment in dedicated transport hubs and IT-enabled trip optimisation. In the absence of clear technological frontrunners for trucks, the government incentives should focus on emission reduction without differentiating between technologies.
Deep decarbonisation will also depend on controlling the motorisation rate. This can be achieved by reducing the demand for private vehicles through enhancement in public transport. It would require improvement in the financial positions of our State Transport Undertakings (STUs) for better quality and quantity of on-road buses.
Further, non-motorised transport (NMT) will need to be made a viable way of commuting. The modal share of walking and cycling has been on the decline for want of accessible and safe infrastructure. Setting up city-level agencies with a mandate to plan and co-ordinate investment in NMT would be a significant step forward.
Decarbonisation of the transport sector by mid-century will require a holistic and integrated approach. Leveraging technology to create a cleaner road sector is essential, but it needs to be combined with other interventions that either reduce motorised travel demand, or shift it to more energy-efficient modes.
Promit Mookherjee is Research Associate in the Transport & Urban Governance Division of The Energy and Resources Institute.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.