The road to net zero in India: Are government policies promoting true mobility decarbonization?

For more effective low carbon mobility transitions, there is a need to consider the interlinkages between EV policies and urban mobility plans, policies governing energy transitions and carbon emitting sectors, consumer uptake, and lifecycle carbon emissions for EVs.

Decarbonizing the mobility sector is key to achieving India’s 2070 net zero goal. Within mobility, road transport is responsible for around 12% of carbon emissions in India and its emissions are expected to increase at an annual rate of 4.1 to 6.1 percent, resulting in a sevenfold rise from their 2010 levels by the year 2050. To promote the shift towards low-carbon road transport, India has instituted policies like the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME), state-specific Electric Vehicle (EV) incentives, and the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme. However, for more effective low carbon mobility transitions, there is a need to consider the interlinkages between EV policies and urban mobility plans, policies governing energy transitions and carbon emitting sectors, consumer uptake, and lifecycle carbon emissions for EVs.

Photo by Arun Prakash on Unsplash

Linking EVs to Urban Mobility Planning
In Indian cities, there is a need to prioritise clean mobility modes like walking, cycling, and public transport over EVs. While state EV policies push for replacing gasoline and diesel vehicles on the road with EVs, they do not address other critical urban problems Indian cities face such as bad first-mile and last-mile connectivity, inequitable access to public transport and traffic congestion. A transition to a combination of new modes of mobility that mitigates these problems is needed along with an EV transition. For example, in addition to providing EV incentives for urban mobility, non-motorized transport infrastructure such as bike lanes and pedestrian paths can be prioritised so that a modal shift towards active transportation is enabled. Electric buses can feed last mile non-motorized transport networks leading to not only the mitigation of emissions but also the reduction in traffic congestion. Implementing interlinked EV and urban mobility plans as the first step can help mobility achieve a clean, equitable, and sustainable solution suitable specifically for Indian urban areas. 

Energy Transitions for Electric Vehicles
FAME II is being implemented in India to accelerate the adoption of electric two wheelers, three wheelers, and buses and promote building EV charging networks. The scheme provides subsidies for the purchase of vehicles and costs related to building charging stations. Though the scheme might lead to the increase in adoption of EVs, it does not reduce the emissions from these vehicles to zero. Road transport emissions are shifted in source from the vehicle tailpipe to the non-renewable energy power plant. This is because only a fourth of the total power generated in India is from non-fossil fuel sources – the rest is from polluting sources such as coal due to which EVs ultimately end up causing pollution even though they are considered “zero emission” vehicles. In order to truly decarbonize mobility in India, associated carbon emitting sectors such as power need to be first decarbonized. The power sector transition tied to mobility decarbonization can be accelerated by building renewable power plants to cater to the increased demand in electricity due to EV charging. A set of interlinked policies that address the transition to EV, charging infrastructure implementation, power generation, and renewable energy transitions in tandem can address these mobility-power sector dependencies. 

Consumer Adoption
One of the largest bottlenecks to the adoption of EVs in India has been the lack of public charging infrastructure. While FAME II has attempted to push consumer adoption of EVs, the lack of standardised charging directives in India has posed a challenge to the expansion of charging networks and has in turn slowed EV adoption. Public tenders do not have a set of approved standards to follow leading to different implementations of EV charging stations at the local level. Along with upstream interventions to address the supply and design of charging infrastructure in cities, downstream, behavioural nudges are needed to raise awareness amongst consumers. In order to address behavioural biases like loss aversion, where customers are unlikely to make decisions that are perceived as risky, information about local charging needs to be improved. For example, potential EV buyers often worry about getting stranded and not being able to find a charger, which makes buying an EV seem risky. In some cities, the provision of charging stations is rapidly growing, however the lack of standardisation of charging spots and limited information about the location of these chargers influences the perception that charging stations aren’t easily available. Standardised designs for chargers and increasing information provision and real time availability of chargers on wayfinding platforms, like Google Maps, greatly addresses this perception. While policies that subsidise the end consumer purchase of the vehicle and improve infrastructure provision are urgently needed, behavioural interventions can also improve uptake of EVs.

Lifecycle Emissions
An interlinked set of policies for achieving zero carbon emissions from the mobility sector would mean assessing life-cycle emissions from electric vehicles and addressing associated sectors where carbon emissions happen. For instance, when a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) is purchased and put to use, lifecycle emissions from it exceed gasoline or diesel vehicle emissions up to the same stage in vehicle life due to battery and manufacturing related emissions. It is only after about twenty thousand kilometres of driving does an EV like the Tesla Model Y  break-even and provide an advantage over the gasoline or diesel vehicle in terms of carbon emissions. Battery manufacture contributes a large portion of that front loaded lifecycle carbon emissions. While the PLI scheme provides companies incentives to manufacture batteries domestically, the level of carbon emissions that result from battery manufacturing as a part of lifecycle emissions for an EV is not used as a key metric for awarding incentives. Vehicle manufacturers should be incentivized to implement processes that ensure a reduced carbon footprint even before the tire hits the road. 

While India is moving in the right direction with the focus on EVs for net zero, policymakers need to take a step back and look at the sectors and areas that are linked to making the decarbonization of mobility in India a success. The opportunity to implement solutions that solve multiple issues outside just the decarbonization of mobility is great – the proper prioritisation of the EV transition based on best fit mobility solutions for specific contexts and addressing factors that influence an EV’s total lifecycle emissions can help achieve the 2070 net zero goals sooner and more effectively. 

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