E-Mobility Alone Will Not Cut Down Urban Congestion and Emissions

Electric vehicles are essential for a green mobility transformation, but they are not a one-stop solution to carbon-intensive transport.

On June 21, NITI Aayog, Indian government’s premier think-tank, asked the two- and three-wheeler manufacturers to submit a concrete electric vehicle (EV) conversion plan within two weeks. While the move met with mixed responses, it is clear that the Union government is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that it keeps up with the electric-mobility revolution. 

The government has already presented a suite of fiscal and non-fiscal measures to support the adoption of electric mobility, including the provision of green license plates, amendment of town planning rules to integrate charging stations and proposals for reducing the Goods and Services Tax on EVs to a mere 5%. 

Coupled with the release of FAME II, policymakers claim that these will catalyse mass adoption of e-mobility solutions. 

EVs are not the end game for green mobility

While it is true that EVs help substantially reduce direct emissions (tailpipe emissions), they are not entirely emission-free. Experts the world over use the well-to-wheel analysis to estimate the carbon footprint of vehicles, which accounts for the energy and emissions necessary to produce the fuel (or electricity) used in a car.

When viewed from this perspective, it is clear that EVs also have environmental impacts that are directly related to the country’s electricity generation mix. When the electricity mix is carbon-intensive, shifting to electric transport can only mean shifting pollution from the road to the grid. 

Also read: India Has a Better Option Than Electric Cars

In fact, the Global EV Outlook by the International Energy Agency warned that EVs offer only limited advantages with respect to internal combustion engine vehicles in terms of overall emissions. They may even result in net increases when considering lifecycle emissions in countries with a carbon-intensive power generation mix (e.g. India and China).

Thus, the policy push for EVs might be well warranted in nations where the power mix comprises enough renewables to make them competitive in terms of their carbon footprint – but not India. This is the case with nations like the UK and the US that are almost 30% less emission-intensive than markets in Asia. 

Thus, the debate on EVs shifts the focus back on the power sector, which is still heavily reliant on coal-fired plants – so much so that coal accounted for 72% of India’s electricity in 2018-19, according to the Central Electricity Authority.

Therefore, EVs might not help in greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction unless India substantially revamps its energy mix – and this revamp is far-fetched. Even though the Union government aspires to beef up its renewables capacity to 40% by 2030, the reality is that coal will still hold nearly half of the energy mix – and remain way ahead of any other energy source – by 2040, as per BP Energy Outlook 2019. Power sector decarbonisation should go hand-in-hand with EV cost reduction and adoption.

Looking at other alternatives

Green mobility as a concept is increasingly becoming more complex since the aim is to reduce the overall environmental impact of the transportation sector. Research and development work is ongoing for creating energy positive passenger vehicles directly using renewable sources like solar energy, but these solutions are not going to be market ready for the next few decades. 

In the meanwhile, it is important to look at practical solutions to reduce GHG emissions from transport. This, in turn, requires a redesign of urban spaces to reduce the demand for total motorised transport activity, and promotion of per-capita low-emission transport modes such as public transport.

While the former is cost-intensive and fails at the anvil of public convenience, the latter is an option that urban planners have been trying to promote but accept defeat in the face of the challenge of shifting behavioural patterns from private to public transit. The key barriers in the widespread adoption of a public transport-centric approach are lack of feeder connectivity and multi-modal public transit, which necessitates investing in shared and active mobility. 

Also read: Why Aren’t There Electric Airplanes Yet?

Shared active transport systems are a new phenomenon for South Asia but they are a common sight in North America, with 35 million bike share trips taken on 100,000 bikes in 2017. These systems combine active and short-trip vehicles like cycles, bikes, scooters etc. with shared mobility applications.

Earlier, the sharing used to be through a docked system where customers picked and returned bikes at stations placed strategically throughout the right-of-way. However, with technological advancements, it is possible to have dockless systems whereby small vehicles can be picked up or left anywhere absent regulation, and rent is facilitated through an app.

Imagine stepping down from a metro station to find a network of small vehicles for short-term rent which could help take you to your final destination. This solves the feeder transport issues and provides last-mile connectivity, both of which nudge behavioural shift towards public transport without any increase in emissions.

Of course, the promotion of these systems requires extensive regulation and development of supportive infrastructure. Before a capital-intensive city redesign is undertaken, it may be more practical to test out the impacts of these systems in smart cities and other greenfield projects.

Gearing up for the revolution after EVs

While EVs are essential for a green mobility transformation, they are not a one-stop solution to carbon-intensive transport. A 2017 report by UC Davis and Institute of Transport Policy and Development analysed three main urban travel scenarios, viz. business as usual (BAU) scenario, 2 Revolutions (2R) scenario marked by rapid vehicle electrification along with rapid automation and the 3 Revolutions (3R) scenario, which it considered the best option for reducing energy use and CO2.

The 3R scenario includes widespread vehicle electrification and automation, along with a major shift in mobility patterns by maximising the use of shared vehicle trips.

In short, this scenario envisages all three revolutions, i.e. increased availability of vehicles for shared trips, increased public transport availability and performance (including on-demand small bus services, larger buses and rail) and significant improvements in walking and cycling infrastructure (active transport systems). 

Thus, while vehicle electrification may produce potentially important benefits, without a corresponding shift toward shared mobility and greater use of transit and active transport, e-mobility alone could significantly increase urban congestion and emissions. The EV debate, therefore, suggests that forward-looking design thinking in policymaking is a must when it comes to dealing with a dynamic beast like climate change. 

Abhinav Verma is a lawyer, and a public policy and design consultant. 

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