Every year the World Environment Day is celebrated on June 5 to spread awareness about environmental issues and to encourage people to take action towards protecting the environment. This year’s theme for World Environment Day is: Biodiversity. 

According to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) climate change, man-made changes, and activities that disrupt climate such as deforestation, land-use changes and intensified agriculture and wildlife trade can increase contact and spread of viruses and infectious diseases from animals to human-like COVID-19. This is the time more than ever to remind ourselves to shift to a more sustainable lifestyle and economy for both, people, and the planet. 

The lockdown period has seen some positive results for the environment, there has been a massive improvement in the air quality, especially in the urban areas. According to reports, the global emission of CO2 has dropped to emission-level last seen in 2006. PM pollution-level also witnessed similar decline, in Delhi -- India’s capital and one of the most polluted cities of the world -- transportation contributes to 40 percent of pollution but air in Delhi became breathable within couple of weeks after the lockdown due to 49 percent reduction in the air quality index.

But it all comes down to how we move after lockdown, government and businesses have to consider how they can do things differently after the lockdown and after the pandemic is over to hold onto temporary improvements in the air quality. We are seeing a completely different landscape for all of us in all aspects. It would be interesting to see how we transition towards clean transportation. Talking about cleaner transport, we would like to bring an insightful talk by O.P. Agarwal CEO, World Resources Institute (WRI) India. Mr. Agarwal delivered this talk in the IESA webinar. He is a highly respected thinker and practitioner with a wealth of experience in climate-change-related development and environmental issues.

He offers a very interesting angle on clean transportation, please listen in https://bit.ly/2ZQBUN6

A: The first thing I would like to say is, when we talk of clean transport today our mind automatically goes to electric cars and other forms of ‘clean forms of fuel for transportation’ but let me take you a step back. Clean transport is not about clean fuels, but it is also about ‘clean forms of transport’. For instance, if anything that helps us avoid a trip, to me, that is clean transport. This webinar is an example of clean transport. So, this is one form of clean transport.

Second, if you can reduce the range of a trip. i.e. If we travel less than what we really need to or if we can do something in half a kilometer than 10 Km, to me, that is clean transport. Now that kind of clean transport does not come from the transportation system alone, but from our urban planning system. How are our cities designed? That is something the city planners work on. City planners are very rightly talking in terms of mixed-use development, where travel distances come down as work and residential areas are closely interspersed. So, on average, people travel shorter distances and they do not have to use their vehicle, but they can easily walk, to me that is another form of clean transport.

Finally, yet another means of clean transport is trips where many people get into a single-vehicle. That is why the National Urban Policy that the government adopted in 2006 really talks about promoting public transport, cycling, and walking as modes of sustainable transport. As a result of that policy, today, many cities are building mass transit systems, some are improving bus systems but today the flavor of the day seems many cities building metro rail systems. So, these are again forms of clean transportation even though they do not necessarily use clean fuels but because they reduce our consumption of fossil fuels so to that extent they are also examples of clean transport.

Q: Mr. Agarwal stressed on the fact that it is important to not talk of clean transportation from the ‘technology perspective’ alone but also from the ‘demand management perspective’. The results thus achieved together would be far better. Smart cities and urban transport mission should be involved in discussions on clean transportation where there will be co-location of businesses and residences to reduce the overall travel for the people. He further explained how different ministries must work together for efficient implementation of e-mobility in India. 

A: EVs are a bit of a challenge, it is not only from a policymaking perspective but also from an implementation perspective.  When it comes down to implementation on ground, challenges are emerging. EV implementation on the ground is challenging as it requires multiple agencies such as the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Ministry of Heavy Industry, Department of Science and Technology, Ministry of Industrial Policy and Planning, Ministry of Urban Development, and Ministry of Finance – all of them to come together to get the policies in place, at the right time, in a coordinated manner to get things done. So, this kind of integration, even at the higher-level or GoI-level at the policy level needs to happen much more than it is happening today.

We should take it to the state-level, city-level, ground-level where you are talking of the transport department, the power department, the municipal corporation, the urban development department, the finance department, how do they come together? This is something that, to my mind, has been the biggest challenge in implementation. How do we get to bring different agencies to come together and take electric mobility forward?

Q: The currently developed State-EV Roadmap maybe 5000 ft view but there should be an in-depth work happening at the ground-level.

A: But what we need on the ground, where do I set up my charging station, what kind of vehicles would be using electric chargers, what are their movement patterns etc, I think these are the very ground-level things which are yet to be managed. We are still above the ground, if we do not get there, we won’t see to many things happening there.  

Today, the only groups where I see things moving to some extent are fleets. In terms of fleets, there is an economic advantage to convert them into electric as they travel a longer distance. So, when they travel long distance there is an economic advantage in moving to electric. They have the advantage of setting up their own charging facilities, they do not ask who is going to pay for the charging facility. Overall the life-cycle cost in electric tends to get a little cheaper, that is why fleets are doing well.

But we have to go beyond fleets. A problem that we see in India, especially in buses, is that one electric bus costs over a crore whereas normal buses cost about 35 lakhs. So the capital costs are so high at a time when cities are under pressure to have more buses on the roads I have a feeling that they are going to be hard-pressed in bringing in more e-buses in today’s situation. Particularly post the pandemic, they must have gone through three months without passengers, they would have paid their staff, the fuel they would have certainly saved but at least 40 percent of the cost that they incur, they would have been incurring with zero revenue. So, they all are hard-pressed for money so asking them to invest in electric buses is going to be really challenging. We have to come up with an option for them to really move to e-buses with a significantly higher share of capital cost coming from some kind of public fund and giving them the benefit of low operating cost to make some of that difference. This is where I think the bus system would be.

Q: According to the World Economic Forum article, China emits over 50 percent of the total nitrogen oxide of Asia. Each tonne of NO2 emitted in the pandemic is the result of removing 62 cars from the road, so we could estimate that over China even a moderate 10 percent reduction in NO2 emission is equivalent to taking 48,000 cars off the road, that’s an indication of what could be achieved permanently for air quality if ICE vehicles are phased down and replaced by electric-powered mass transit system but electric vehicles are as clean as the electricity that powers them. The recent improvement in air quality could be made permanent by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and other low-carbon resources?

A: Speaking of clean energy, to my mind, the talk of clean transport will not be complete unless we talk of clean energy along with clean transport. I am a great believer in clean energy and clean transport being planned together. I think there is a win-win situation if both of them are planned together. Unfortunately, what we see is that the power department is not in sync with the transport department, at least, not to the extent that it needs to be. Take, for example, the Ministry of Power has come up with the initiative of installing charging stations, but no one has told them where to set it up. If there are set up in location where they have land available nobody uses that charging station for charging, I think charging station needs to be installed in places where there is a need for vehicles to be charged, these too, cannot be out of sync. Otherwise, we will see charging stations coming up in places where they are not being used and there will be need for charging station in places where they are not placed.

That is why, two of them coming together is extremely important.

The second reason they need to come together is storage.

For clean energy storage is a big challenge but most personal vehicle are stationary for 90 percent of the time, for the time they are stationary, can those batteries not serve as storage? You have a sort-of mobile device which is stationary for 95 percent of the time can be an excellent storage. So, I think somehow these two coming together can really be a win-win situation for both, but we need to plan for them together. It cannot be in isolation. That’s where I feel the success for clean technology of transportation has to be driven by some kind of an electric mobility mission or clean mission which brings together people from multiple agencies, works under a higher level reporting responsibility and they are the one who can really bringing this forward. To my mind a clean mobility mission is the need of the day in the country.