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A 4-step action plan could lay foundation for a clean transition in transport sector

Using sustainable fuel, energy efficiency, integrating different transport systems and optimising available capacity hold the key to containing emissions from the sector.

March 14, 2021 9:19:15 pm
four-step action plan, sustainable fuel, energy efficiency, Paris Agreement, carbon emission in india, CO2 emissions from transport, air pollution india, opinion indian express indian expressA four-step action plan could lay the foundation for a clean transition in the transport sector. (Representational image)

Written by OP Agarwal, Chirag Gajjar and Nitya Kaushik

Five years since the Paris Agreement, India has not just taken significant steps towards its domestic goal of installing 175 gigawatts of renewable energy (RE) capacity by 2022, but also scaled up its commitment to such clean sources of energy to 450 GW by 2030. Now that the nation has a definite pathway for action in the energy sector, it is time to focus on another major greenhouse gas (GHG) contributor – transport.

Transport contributes about 15 per cent of GHG emissions, globally. While in India, it’s footprint is much lower at around 9.6 per cent, according to the latest estimates, transport is also among the fastest-growing emitters. As the nation gears up for rapid economic growth and urbanisation, the transport sector is projected to grow rapidly. To ensure that this growth does not trigger a simultaneous rise in GHG emissions, a predicament the world can’t afford today, India must take immediate steps to adopt low-emission, low-cost pathways that support our climate commitments from an early stage.

A four-step action plan could lay the foundation for a clean transition in the transport sector.

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One, adoption of sustainable fuels. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 (NEMMP) aims to promote hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) over conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. This may not be an easy transition. After eight years and rolling out two phases of the Faster Adoption and Manufacture of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme, a significantly large network of supporting infrastructure still remains to be created to facilitate large-scale adoption. Among them are primary requirements like charging infrastructure and battery production facilities. High battery costs, high charging time and the convenience of the existing technology make the transition more difficult.

However, hope is on the horizon. Battery prices for EV have been declining steadily, newer technologies are promising higher energy density of batteries, and charging facilities are slowly coming up in cities. While progress has been slow so far, India seems to be picking up the pace for EV adoption. An EV sales mandate has the potential to reduce cumulative CO2 emissions from transport by 55 per cent between 2019 and 2050.

One important question, however, is whether EV can be adopted for long-distance commute, considering the limitation in its “range” (currently available batteries need to be charged for a minimum of four hours at an interval of 200-300 km). Hydrogen-based fuels can be the answer to this hurdle, but its technology is still evolving and costs are high, not having benefited from scale economies, yet. The announcement of the soon-to-be-launched National Hydrogen Energy Mission in Budget 2021-22 could provide the much-needed fillip the sector needed to open up the long-route trajectory for EVs.

Two, a shift to energy-efficient modes. There are two dimensions to effecting a modal shift in India: first, to get people to shift from personal motor-vehicles to public and non-motorised transport (buses, bicycles) and second, to get long-distance transport – especially freight – to shift from road-based systems to rail or marine.

Based on the recommendations of the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) 2006, several Indian cities have invested massively in public transport. Today, all of India’s large cities have operating metro rail systems, while in many smaller and growing cities they are under construction. Further, the Rs 18,000 crore boost to public bus systems in the budget, and the call to deploy low-cost metros in smaller cities have come as a shot in the arm of mass-transit. An enduring challenge to support public transport has, however, been the basic issue of attracting patronage. Besides upgrading and offering high-tech facilities, integrating the overall transport systems and improving last-mile connectivity could help.

As for long-distance freight transport, a modal shift would imply a greater use of rail or marine transport over road. For example, transporting petroleum oil and lubricants from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu by rail instead of road can reduce emissions by three-quarters. Unfortunately, rail and marine transport systems cannot offer door-to-door services and need to integrate with other modes, particularly short-distance road transport. In the absence of such models of integration, most freight movement in India occurs by road, despite being more expensive. Ongoing projects like the Dedicated Freight Corridor could accelerate the modal shift. Setting up a comprehensive logistics division in the Ministry of Commerce and Industries is also a step in the right direction for integrating transport for export cargo.

Three, integrating transport systems. This has always been a challenge in India, considering that the task has historically been fragmented across five national ministries – Road Transport and Highways, Railways, Ports and Shipping, Civil Aviation and Housing and Urban Affairs. In comparison, countries like the US, UK, China, South Korea, Brazil and others have a single department that governs transport across all its modes.

For India, too, an integrated approach is needed for policymaking across modes. While the NUTP had recommended the establishment of Unified Metropolitan Transport Authorities in cities, only a few have complied so far. The recently set up Kochi Metropolitan Transport Authority, Kerala, today promises to revolutionise urban transport and set an example for others to follow. Similar models for the integration of long-distance traffic are needed.

Four, optimisation of available capacity. The concept is based on the premise that an empty seat in a moving vehicle is a wasted resource. So far overlooked by utilities and policymakers alike, this concept is gaining attention globally.

The concept of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is getting increasing attention: Imagine if one could book a ride on a bus, a metro, a taxi and an auto-rickshaw to undertake a single journey, with the use of a single app on their mobile phone or computer! Such digitally advanced integration can help in better utilization of the available transport assets and reduce the waste of scarce resources.

Through these four-pronged measures, India has the potential to revolutionise its transport sector, significantly reduce GHG emissions, and support climate change mitigation. Following our achievement to set up the International Solar Alliance, could a Sustainable Transport Alliance be far behind in Atmanirbhar Bharat?

Agarwal is CEO, Gajjar is Lead, Subnational Climate Action (Climate Program) and Kaushik, Media Lead at World Resources Institute India. Views are personal.

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