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Traffic jam on a highway in north India. Traffic in Indian cities is notoriously unfriendly to cyclists and pedestrians

What India needs to do for a sustainable transport sector

By Shalini Rankavat, Shiv Nadar University in Greater Noida

 

India faces a massive challenge to steer its transport sector toward being carbon neutral by 2050. Here’s what can be done.

Amid escalating environmental challenges, India’s transport sector has emerged as a significant contributor to the country’s carbon footprint, accounting for approximately 13-15 percent of total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The sector’s emissions are poised to increase more with economic growth, as private vehicle ownership and urbanisation rise.

By 2050, India’s energy consumption and CO2 emissions from road transport could double, driven by the expanding use of private vehicles and trucks, alongside continued reliance on gasoline and diesel fuels.

Tackling this urgent issue to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees demands a comprehensive, multi-faceted strategy to steer India’s transport sector towards carbon neutrality.

Switching to electric vehicles (EVs) is a key step.

The impact of EVs on reducing CO2 emissions however hinges significantly on the carbon intensity of India’s power industry, which currently leans heavily on coal. While EVs eliminate tailpipe emissions, the vehicles still need electricity to charge their batteries. The indirect CO2 emissions from power plants therefore remain a concern.

Despite this, by 2030, India’s EV fleet is expected to prevent approximately 5 million tons (Mt) of CO2 emissions, with projections ranging from 110 to 380 Mt of CO2 by 2050, depending on the scale of EV adoption and the pace of the power sector’s transition to cleaner sources.

The promise of electric vehicles

Beyond CO2 emissions reduction, EV adoption also promises substantial improvements in air quality.

EV sales have been on the rise, accounting for 1.8 percent of new vehicle sales in 2021 and exceeding 4 percent in 2022. However, adoption rates vary significantly by vehicle type. More than 50 percent of new three-wheelers are electric, compared to 4 percent for two-wheelers and less than 1 percent for cars.

Despite competitive lifetime cost advantages, initial expenses remain a deterrent for prospective buyers. Tax rebates, subsidies on purchase prices, and reduced registration fees could all help drive increased EV adoption.

Establishing a robust network of charging infrastructure, spanning highways, rural areas, and urban centres, is also important and will need concerted efforts from both public and private sectors.

Integrating renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric into the grid is pivotal for decarbonising the electricity used to charge EVs. Investments in smart grid technologies are essential to manage the growing demand for EV charging efficiently.

EVs however will not be the only vehicles on the roads. The internal combustion engine is not about to disappear just yet.

Stringent emission regulations can ensure only low-emission vehicles operate on Indian roads. Mandatory emissions testing and penalties for non-compliance incentivize manufacturers to produce vehicles with reduced pollution levels. Establishing fuel efficiency criteria for both passenger and commercial vehicles is crucial to drive innovation and adoption of more efficient technologies.

Promoting the use of biofuels and compressed natural gas in public and commercial transport can significantly lower emissions compared to conventional petrol and diesel. Investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology presents a viable emission-free option for long-distance and heavy-duty transportation, contingent on establishing adequate production and refuelling infrastructure.

Other ways of getting around

Investing in modern public transport systems can substantially reduce reliance on private vehicles, thereby cutting emissions. Bus Rapid Transit Systems, featuring dedicated lanes for buses, enhance punctuality and reduce travel times, making public transit more attractive to commuters.

Some Indian cities already have them; others need to follow. Metro and suburban rail networks in urban areas alleviate traffic congestion and pollution, facilitating seamless connectivity between city centres. These need to be expanded.

For longer distances, accelerating the electrification of railway networks is critical, given electric trains’ superior energy efficiency and lower emissions compared to diesel locomotives. Increasing the number of electrified rail routes promises significant reductions in carbon emissions from rail transport.

A shift of freight to rail would also help reduce emissions. More than 70 percent of freight in India currently moves on roads. Most of this is on trucks, which constitute less than 5 percent of India’s total vehicle fleet but contribute over 34 percent of transport-related CO2 and 53 percent of particulate emissions.

Improving logistics operations through better route planning and integrating technology can optimise fuel consumption in freight transport. Real-time tracking and automated warehousing systems enhance operational efficiency, contributing to reduced emissions.

The transport system with the least emissions is of course cycling or walking.

Traffic in Indian cities is notoriously unfriendly to cyclists and pedestrians. Developing dedicated bike lanes and pedestrian walkways improves safety and convenience for non-motorised transport users.

Urban planning initiatives should prioritise these as parts of interconnected networks to encourage greater adoption of walking and cycling as viable transportation options.

Another solution is to minimise travel distances for people. Transport-oriented development strategies, focusing on urban areas near transport hubs, aim to do this by encouraging mixed-use urban development. The effort is to integrate residential, commercial, cultural, entertainment and institutional functions thus facilitating accessibility to essential services on foot or by bicycle.

In major urban centres, introducing congestion pricing can alleviate traffic jams and reduce emissions. Finally, there’s parking management. Strict enforcement of parking policies, including higher fees and limits on parking spaces, encourages the use of public transport and park-and-ride facilities.

Incentives and disincentives are, in the end, only part of the solution.

Eventually, the decision to use a car, bicycle or public transport involves behavioural change in individuals. Public awareness campaigns and behavioural changes are thus integral to fostering sustainable, efficient, and environmentally friendly transportation solutions.

Dr Shalini Rankavat is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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