India is aiming for 30 per cent of new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030, as it seeks to decarbonise passenger transport. This alone is unlikely to be enough to achieve meaningful overall reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to the country’s power sources.

While EVs release zero tailpipe emissions, their overall climate change impact is largely driven by the carbon intensity of the power grid. In India’s case, at the national level, 74 per cent of electricity is coal-powered. This figure varies from one State to another — exceeding 80 per cent in the Eastern and Western regions, including key States like Maharashtra, but dropping below 20 per cent in the North-Eastern region.

It should therefore come as no surprise that EVs will be most effective in parts of India with the lowest dependence on coal. But what about in other places where it might take significant time to move away from this carbon-intensive power source? With around 250 million vehicles on the road and a population of 1.3 billion, India needs to keep all options on the table.

Mosaic approach

In a recently published study on India’s transport sector, we found that a mosaic approach tailored to the country’s unique requirements may be the best option to reduce vehicle emissions. This includes a combination of electric vehicles, especially for two-wheelers, and an emphasis on gasoline-electric hybrids for four-wheel cars.

In fact, after assessing the lifetime carbon footprint of 600 two- and four-wheeled passenger road vehicles in India, we have discovered that electric vehicles (EVs) could in some cases lead to more emissions than those with conventional engines. A lot depends on where and how the EVs are charged.

Our analyses show that gasoline-electric hybrids could reduce vehicle CO2 emissions by about 30 per cent, compared with the average gasoline four-wheel vehicles sold in India today. In addition, hybrid vehicles — which are newly entering the Indian market — do not require a costly charging infrastructure, since the battery is self-charged by a gasoline-powered engine.

In contrast, a four-wheel EV reduces CO2 emissions by less than five per cent compared to the average vehicle sold in India between 2018 and 2019. This is due to the emissions from coal-fired electricity, as well as electric battery manufacturing.

Two-wheeler domination

Meanwhile, the large number of two-wheelers in India is an important point to consider. More than 200 million of India’s 250 million-plus vehicles are two-wheelers — and their total CO2 emissions are about the same as those from India’s four-wheelers. That’s very different from most countries. Our research found that electric scooters could reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by about 20 per cent, compared to conventional two-wheelers.

One reason is that an electric two-wheeler has a substantially smaller battery than an electric car, so manufacturing emissions are only marginally higher than those of conventional scooters. And those extra emissions are offset by the significant efficiency gains when the vehicle is in use.

Furthermore, two-wheeler batteries are often removable, which means they can be charged at home or even swapped at interchange stations. That requires minimal infrastructure, compared to the support network necessary for four-wheel EVs.

Electrification infrastructure is significant, particularly when you consider that India may need up to 5-10 per cent of the world’s battery capacity annually to achieve its vehicle electrification goal. It will be competing with other countries for a limited supply of battery materials used in vehicle energy storage, power generation, electronic devices, and more.

Weaning off coal

In addition, the country will have to invest in or incentivise the building of a charging network, as well as battery recycling and repurposing programs.

There is no doubt that electric vehicles are important to India’s transport future. However, their impact will be limited until the country can wean its power network off coal.

In the meantime, other transport solutions are needed to support its climate ambitions against a backdrop of rising vehicle demand and electricity consumption. Yet even then, technology alone won’t solve the problem. It will require significant behavioural changes too, and policies that reduce journeys — or encourage people to choose public transport — are also critical.

The writer is a researcher with Saudi Aramco