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Decarbonization is not equal to electric vehicles

If you ask 10 people in the country on how the transport sector can be decarbonised, nine of them will most certainly offer electric vehicles (EVs) as a solution. They cannot be blamed. For some reason the communication that is reaching them is that EVs are the panacea for all ills involving vehicular emissions. This, despite the government’s broad-based approach to this critical challenge involving multiple fuel options.

Emissions can also be cut significantly through shared mobility and scrapping older vehicles. All these pathways are critical if India has to keep its international commitment of reducing its carbon intensity by 45 percent by 2030 (from 2005 base levels).

While EVs, no doubt, appear to be a promising solution — its tail pipe emission is zero, there are other issues around it if one does a ‘well to wheel’ analysis. If the source of power that charges the EV batteries is not clean (more 60 per cent of India’s power is generated from coal — a dirty fuel), then they do not contribute to the overall reduction in green-house gas (GHG) emission. Also, mining of metals used in EV batteries involves energy intensive processes and measures that are not often ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) compliant.

So, India’s vehicle mix is ​​such that EVs cannot be the only solution. Consider this: bulk of the diesel consumption (almost 40 per cent), for instance, is by trucks and inter-state buses. Today, there is no solution involving electric mobility for them.

Ambitious target

The government has set a very ambitious target of 30 per cent of all passenger vehicles sold by 2030 to be EVs. Experts realistically expect this to be around 8-10 per cent considering the scalability challenges involving charging stations and continuation of subsidies. So, by 2030, it can be assumed that almost 90 per cent of all cars sold will still have internal combustion engines (ICE). That plus the existing cars (non-EVs) on the road will continue emitting greenhouse gases at levels that will make it difficult for India to meet its obligations.

In addition, the country needs to keep in mind affordability and energy security too. India’s per capita income (in PPP terms) is a tenth of Norway or the US. The solution that these countries develop may be too costly for us. Also, the country is weak when it comes to energy security as it is almost entirely dependent externally for its crude oil needs. Can India use the transformation that is happening in the mobility space to build that security? EVs may not offer them as the nation does not have access to lithium (a key component of an EV battery) reserves. China has the largest share of the reserves.

In other words, our energy dependence, if we embrace electric mobility as our main option, could shift from West Asia to China. A grim prospect indeed.

That apart, the technologies involving green mobility are still evolving and there is a chance that a better fuel source may emerge for India going forward. Therefore, the government is rightly pursuing multiple options — bio-fuel (ethanol and compressed bio-gas) including flex-fuel vehicles, compressed natural gas (CNG), hydrogen, hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) apart from EVs. Each of these will have a role to play and would be acceptable to different category of vehicles.

Ethanol: Ethanol blending has finally taken off after many false starts. Today, the nation has achieved 10 per cent blending and a target has been set for 20 per cent by 2025. Ethanol blending involves reduction in emission at almost no higher cost for consumers (both fuel and vehicles price).

Availability of ethanol is the key and the government has taken steps towards that by even allowing direct conversion of cane juice to ethanol. This has also helped India handle its sugar surplus effectively. Ethanol blending has improved the cash flow of the sugar industry which has also benefited farmers. Ethanol capacity is being ramped up and the government is already pushing for flex-fuel engines (they will cost more than ICE vehicles but less than EVs) that can use much larger proportions of ethanol.

Gas: CNG vehicles are again a low-cost option in driving decarbonisation. They do not cost much higher than ICE vehicles and emit much less GHGs. The government is increasing the availability of CNG and by 2030, 17,000 plus fuel stations are planned from the present 4,500. Compressed bio-gas (CBG) is another focus area. It is generated from farm waste. Plans are afoot to set up decentralized CBG plants that can procure farm waste, convert it to CBG and supply to nearby fuel stations. This too will help the rural economy and cut emissions that burning the waste generates (and thus carbon negative).

Hybrids: Hybrid electric vehicles is another path. They cost more than an ICE vehicle but less than an EV and cut emissions by 40 per cent. As they charge and recharge continuously, they obviate the need for charging stations and can be scaled up faster.

Hydrogen: Vehicles powered by hydrogen, experts say, are at least a decade away. They appear to be most promising for India in terms of emission obligation (zero emission) and energy security (zero imports). The government must put all its energy and go on a mission mode to develop the technology and capacity to produce green hydrogen at an affordable cost.

Multiple fuels

Till an ideal technology is developed, multiple fuels will have to drive India’s decarbonization path — EVs (2w/3w/ intra-city public transport); bio-fuel (small cars, trucks and inter-city buses); Hybrid electric vehicle (large passenger vehicles); CNG/CBG (Intra-city buses/small PVs).

That apart, scrapping old vehicles (one 15-year-old truck’s emission equals 14 new ones) and ensuring seamless public transport will go a long way in cutting emission. As V Sumantran, Charles Fine and David Gonsalvez point out in their book Faster, Smarter, Greener – The future of car and urban mobility, the economic cost of air pollution, traffic snarls and grid locks is anywhere between 6-8 per cent of a region’s GDP.

They further argue that emission control is an issue that is much beyond the purview of the auto sector and involves the society, city and community.

Therefore, a conscious effort should be made to educate every Indian that decarbonization is a challenge that can be solved only with multiple technologies and cannot be done without their whole-hearted involvement.

Published on

August 04, 2022

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