Decarbonising transport: Redefining mobility policies in India

India has the unique opportunity to build clean, connected and cutting-edge transport systems.

Written by Siddharth Sinha and Madhav Sharma

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed a number of challenges for the transport sector, one of which is the shift of citizens from public to private and personal modes of transport. Public transit and shared mobility services have witnessed an unprecedented impact on account of pandemic control measures and public hesitancy arising out of fear of contracting the virus. India’s transport sector, which caters to over a billion people, is constantly expanding due to rapid urbanisation, contributing to increased pollution and congestion. This may worsen significantly as people shift away from public transport. This crisis, however, also presents us with the unique opportunity to substitute the increased demand and control changing transport-uptake patterns with clean, connected and cutting-edge transport systems. This requires a fresh approach grounded in leveraging data intelligently to push forward with our mobility policies and emissions targets.

As an emerging market, India is one of the largest car and two-wheeler manufacturers in the world. It also has the fourth-largest railway network and the fastest-growing aviation market. Our motor vehicle fleet is growing rapidly — with the vehicles plying on the road expected to almost double to over 200 million by 2030. Interestingly, the share of non-motorised transport in many Indian cities is high compared to similarly sized cities globally. It is reported that in Indian cities with populations of over 1 million, non-motorised transport accounted for more than 25 per cent of passenger trips, compared with approximately 14 per cent in London. The transport sector of India is the third most greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting sector and accounted for 14 per cent of our energy-related CO2 emissions. These emissions have more than tripled since 1990, and with India’s urban population expected to double by 2050, they are likely to increase further.

The government has already taken a number of measures in this direction — the FAME II scheme (the subsidy as part of which was recently increased, further bringing down the cost differential between EVs and ICE vehicles) is already providing an impetus to clean mobility while the recently introduced Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for Advanced Cell Chemistry (ACC) battery storage will further accelerate EV adoption. The Railways has pledged to become a net-zero emitter by 2030 and the operationalisation of dedicated freight corridors will cut emissions by almost 450 million tonnes in the first 30 years. Metro rails are rapidly expanding across the country as is the concept of high speed regional mobility — the Delhi-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System and the Kerala Semi-High Speed Rail are both transformational projects, which will provide quick and seamless inter-city linkage and take millions of vehicles off the road. Ropeways, for Overhead Mass Rapid Transit (OMRTS) along the lines of the highly successful La Paz Ropeway in Bolivia, are already being explored in Northern and Northeastern states.

India is one of the few countries on track to achieve its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement, having already achieved 21 per cent of its pledge to reduce emissions intensity of GDP by 33-35 per cent by 2030. In fact, it is just two per cent short of the 2030 target of 40 per cent of installed non-fossil fuel electricity capacity. We must continue to bolster our efforts in this direction because the effects are not just limited to reduction of our oil import bills and ushering cleaner mobility, but also the emergence of newer business models, advanced research, greater employment opportunities and an overall multiplier effect on the economy. In today’s increasingly data-driven world, this would require sustainable and innovative policies backed by data and advanced modelling capabilities. In India, while we have abundance of data, we lack an integrated approach to use it in a meaningful way. Today, new data collection techniques and modelling exercises have become available that offer larger sample sizes, cover a wide geography and give real-time insights. The adoption and advancement of GPS, IoTs, Bluetooth, NFC and WiFi, Smart Cards and Smartphone apps have become a disruptive form of data collection.

Going forward, a scenario-based modelling approach for formulating transport policies would be ideal. Through such modelling, we can assess how GHG emissions reductions could be achieved through a feasible set of scenarios rather than apply a one-size-fits-all policy decision. We need to evaluate our current-ambition scenario which shows what the future would be like should we continue with our current policies, and also simulate different high-ambition scenarios which show how interventions which deviate from the status quo can lead to further GHG reductions in the years to come. One such modelling tool available is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach, which allows us to assess the components of the transport ecosystem throughout their useful life, from cradle to grave, and assess the impact on the environment at every stage. Often well-intended policy decisions, aimed at controlling emissions may actually result in a situation where emissions in another stage of the product life cycle increase, a concept known as burden shifting. However, LCA avoids this issue by virtue of being applicable across the product lifecycle.

Using such tools and scenario building exercises, we can develop a framework which not only gives policymakers a wealth of data, but also allows for different policy options to be tested and their future impact predicted and quantified, thus allowing for the optimal one to be chosen. In India, two mammoth projects aimed at developing such modelling tools and identifying pathways towards decarbonisation have already kicked off last year, driven by a consortium of the International Transport Forum, GIZ, REN21, WRI, ICCT and Agora Verkehrswende, and is being coordinated nationally by NITI Aayog. In addition to the modelling exercises for which data gathering from select smart cities has already taken off, a first-of-its kind digital library on e-mobility has been launched which has brought together all research on clean mobility on a single platform. Capacity building workshops and the establishment of a national mobility stakeholder platform are also in the pipeline.

As a developing country, it is important for us to balance out the aspirations of people and economic growth with environment and sustainability. In this context, our ability to break the data silos and leverage the massive amount of available data in a meaningful manner is of pivotal importance. It would enable us to design policies that are firmly grounded in data and which are likely to be highly efficient and impactful across the entire transport ecosystem in the country, paving the way for a paradigm shift in the future of mobility in India.

Sinha is a public policy consultant and Sharma is Young Professional at NITI Aayog, Government of India. Views expressed are personal.

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