Are we choosing the right solutions for reducing GHG emissions from the transport sector?

Are we choosing the right solutions for reducing GHG emissions from the transport sector?

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published Published on Jun 20, 2022   modified Modified on Jun 27, 2022

The transport sector is important for the smooth functioning of an economy. The supply chains for various products and by-products (both domestically as well as internationally) can work efficiently only if the transportation of raw materials and inputs, and final goods and commodities takes place without disruption.  

Due to economic growth, India’s annual CO2 (i.e., carbon dioxide) emission has expanded from 1.19 billion tonnes in 2005 to 2.44 billion tonnes in 2020 (please see the graph below). The energy sector is reported to be the largest Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitter, followed by the agricultural sector, and industrial processes and waste contributing the rest.  



However, the transport sector is not far behind. Road transport contributed to about 9 percent of total carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent in 2016, the year for which the latest data is available. Transport ranked second among the top 15 emission categories in terms of CO2 equivalent in 2016.  

Within the transport sector, GHG emissions are generated by fossil fuels burning in all activities of national transportation (aerial, terrestrial, railways and navigation), excluding military operations (maritime and aerial). Almost 13 percent of emissions by the energy sector came from transport, with a predominant share of 90 percent contributed by road transport, followed by civil aviation (6 percent), railways (3 percent) and domestic water-borne navigation (1 percent).

The advanced capitalist countries are held responsible for the bulk of the GHG emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution. For example, the total sum of CO2 emissions produced from fossil fuels and cement since 1750 (i.e., cumulative CO2 emissions) by the United States was 416.72 billion tonnes in 2020. On the contrary, the total sum of CO2 emissions produced from fossil fuels and cement since 1750 by India was 54.42 billion tonnes in 2020, which is almost one-eighth of the CO2 emissions by the US historically (please see the graph below).

India's Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) submitted on October 2, 2015 outlines the post-2020 climate actions the country intends to undertake under the Paris Agreement on climate change and India ratified the Paris Agreement on the same date in 2016. India submitted its NDC under the Paris Agreement on a “best effort basis” keeping in mind the developmental imperatives of the country. In its NDC, the country promised to reduce its emission intensity of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 33 to 35 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030, among other things. Emission intensity is defined as the total amount of GHG emitted for every unit of GDP. 

A critique of the policies to cut GHG emissions from the transport sector

1. Use of biofuels and biodiesels and ethanol blending: One of the strategies to cut emissions from the transport sector is to reduce the country’s dependence on petroleum imports and to develop alternative fuels. The National Policy on Biofuels-2018, in order to reduce petroleum imports, envisages an indicative target of 20 percent blending of ethanol in petrol and 5 percent blending of bio-diesel in diesel by the year 2030. However, the experience of other countries indicates that the use of biofuels not only affects food security adversely both at the national and global levels, their utilisation failed to curb GHG emissions. 

A recent article by NITI Aayog Member Ramesh Chand clearly says that if food is diverted for biofuel needs, then one can expect an increase in food prices as can be observed currently. He says that "the proportion of vegetable oil used for biodiesel increased from 1% in 2003 to 11% in 2011; it went up to more than 15% in 2021. This is further related to energy prices. When crude prices increase beyond a certain level it becomes economical to use oilseeds and grains for biodiesel and ethanol, respectively. The second reason for the use of food crops for biofuel is the mandates to increase the share of renewable energy resources."

In an article published at Inter Press Service, Frederic Mousseau, Policy Director at The Oakland Institute, San Francisco, writes that the present shortage of food grains is created because of the diversion of 40 percent of total corn produced by the United States for ethanol production, while another 40 percent of the total production is used for animal feed. Like in the 2007-08 crisis, global cereal shortage is created by increasing amounts of food being diverted to the production of agro-fuels. Although ethanol is at least 24 percent more carbon-intensive than gasoline, the Biden administration has chosen to further incentivize ethanol production by heavily subsidizing it. Mousseau states that more than one-third of the food produced globally is used for animal feed as well as for other non-food uses, mainly agro-fuels or biofuels. One of the ways to reduce the pressure on food prices globally is to curb the diversion of food for the production of fuel.

The blending of biofuels in transport fuels is likely to bring more land under the cultivation of feedstock. A report by Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis ( suggests that "land is used far more efficiently generating renewable power for electric vehicle (EV) batteries than growing crops for ethanol." In the light of India’s ambitious plans to bring forward the E20 ethanol-blending target to 2025, outlined in the 2021 Ethanol Roadmap, the IEEFA report asks that the "scale and speed of India’s ethanol blending plans should be critically reviewed with efficient land use as an important consideration."  

Writing for, Tanvi Deshpande says in her article that it will take a long time for India to have vehicles to be E20 compatible. The vehicles manufactured in the country since 2018 are fuel-efficient compliant with E5 (5 percent ethanol blended in petrol), but their engines are not tuned to E10 for maximum performance. Engine modifications for new vehicles are required if E10 petrol is made available across the country. Experts expect that the E20 compatible vehicles are much more expensive than the E5 ones. The modification and calibration of vehicles will require large scale investment in infrastructure, argues Deshpande. 

A 10 percent ethanol blend by 2022 and a 20 percent blend (E20) by 2025 have been targeted by the Government. At present, the country blends 8.5 percent ethanol in petrol. In order to attain E20 goal, India's ethanol capacity needs to be raised from 684 crore litres to 1,000 crore litres. One of the problems with increasing the ethanol production capacity is that the sugar mills and distilleries are among the 18 most polluting industries in India, as per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Sugar mills generate a lot of wastewater.

Since sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop, it makes little sense to bring large areas under its cultivation for producing ethanol. If sugarcane and paddy are cultivated for ethanol manufacturing, then it will not only cause further depletion of groundwater but will also pose a risk to availability of food grains for human consumption. 

In 2021, rice from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) stocks was sold at subsidized rates to distilleries for producing ethanol. The ethanol was either blended with petrol or used to make alcohol-based sanitisers. However, such a decision by the National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC), chaired by the Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, was opposed by various civil society organisations against the backdrop of the rise in hunger and deepening of livelihood crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the National Policy on Biofuels had given emphasis on second generation biofuels in 2018 too, the E20 target put the focus back on the first-generation feedstock options (i.e., corn, sugarcane, wheat, and other grains plus rapeseed and palm oil). The second-generation biofuels include rice or wheat straw, corn cobs, bagasse, bamboo and other non-food feedstock. Presently, second generation biofuels technology is at a nascent stage. 

2. Use of electric powered Regional Rapid Transit System and Metro System: Eleven Metro systems in 18 cities are presently operational. While a greater number of Indian cities are becoming reliant on the Metro rail to meet their daily mobility requirements, about 900 km Metro/ Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) is under construction in 27 cities. The Metro Rail System, which is powered by electricity, is often considered to emit lesser GHGs in comparison to other transport systems. Unlike what the promoters of Metro systems say, evidence suggests that available space on the road, created by reduced congestion after the inception of Metro services, gets quickly filled up with motorised vehicles due to induced demand. Therefore, the Metro system does not result in overall reduced congestion or air pollution, says Prof. Geetam Tiwari of IIT Delhi. Emissions and electricity consumption based on a life cycle assessment of the Delhi Metro is higher than the CNG-run bus system, observes Tiwari. During real estate development for building Metro systems, poor households often get displaced. Metro system serves a miniscule proportion of the population who travel longer distances (i.e., 8-10 kms). However, most trips in Indian cities are short (shorter than 10 kms) in length. For the last mile connectivity, to and from Metro stations, people generally take motorised vehicles that cause vehicular pollution.

3. Replacing fossil fuel run vehicles with electric vehicles: The Government of India’s National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) aimed to deploy around 4 lakh passenger battery electric vehicles (BEVs) on road by the year 2020. Between 2018 and 2019, the sales of electric two-wheelers in the country more than doubled from 54,800 units to 1,26,000 units. The Department of Heavy Industry is administering the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid) and Electric Vehicles (FAME) India Scheme for the promotion of electric/ hybrid vehicles w.e.f. 1st April, 2015. In the first phase of the scheme, 0.28 million hybrid and electric vehicles were supported by way of demand incentives amounting to roughly Rs. 359 crores. The Phase-II of FAME India Scheme for a period of three years began in April 2019 with a total budgetary support of nearly Rs. 10,000 crores. The second phase of the FAME scheme covers strict speed, range and energy efficiency requirements. The states that have rolled out their EV/ Draft EV policies are Karnataka, Telangana, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and a few others. These states have proposed several fiscal incentives to car and battery manufacturers, charging infrastructure companies and consumers. However, experts have contended that the bulk of the subsidies offered by various State Governments and the Union Government on electric cars actually goes to the large car segment consumers who though affluent, are small in numbers. 

Rare earth metals comprise 17 chemical elements -- 15 lanthanides (anthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium), scandium and yttrium. They are found in the cells used in electric vehicles (EVs), among other things. Like it happens for other mining operations, extraction and mining of rare earth metals also leads to land-use exploitation, environmental damage and ecological burden. Rare earth metals are mined using extremely energy-intensive processes, releasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere and toxins into the ground. Several of the heavy metals like mercury, barium, lead, chromium and cadmium are dangerous to both human health and environment.

Existing studies (please click here and here to access) show that the mining of lithium and cobalt, used for manufacturing NMC (Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt oxide and other cathode chemistries) cathodes in the rechargeable batteries for EVs, and graphite (heavily processed to serve as anodes in EV batteries), can be injurious to human health and detrimental to the environment. Their mining can also cause large-scale displacement of indigenous communities from their land.

Unsafe disposal of lithium-ion batteries (used in EVs as well as mobile phones and other consumer electronics) straight into the landfills can be a major environmental threat. Used batteries contain toxic and/or flammable materials as a result of which their handling by untrained persons in the informal waste-management sector can trigger fires. Unsafe disposal of lithium-ion batteries can also contaminate soil and water.

4. Transition from BS-IV to BS-VI: India skipped the Bharat Stage (BS)-V emission norms and straightway introduced BS-VI from April 1, 2020. In order to regulate air pollutants from internal combustion engine and spark-ignition engine equipment, including motor vehicles, Bharat Stage (BS) emission standards are laid down by the Government. From April 1, 2020 onwards, the Union Government has made it mandatory for vehicle manufacturers to manufacture, sell and register only BS-VI compliant vehicles. BS-VI emission standards are comparatively stricter than BS-IV. With the introduction of BS-VI standard, manufacturers need to update their vehicles with new options and safety standards. However, the biggest modification has to be done for permissible emission norms.

After the introduction of BS-VI norms, auto manufacturers are required to invest heavily for building the requisite capabilities for vehicles ranging from cars and SUVs to two-wheelers and trucks. The transition from BS-IV to BS-VI is expected to alter the cost structure. The shift to BS-VI is also set to shake up the auto component industry. New cars with BS-VI engines are expected to be more expensive.



Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (2021): India's Third Biennial Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, released in February, please click here to access

Press release: National Statement by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at COP26 Summit in Glasgow, Prime Minister's Office (PMO), Press Information Bureau, released on November 1, 2021, please click here to access 

Report of the Sub-Committee for the Assessment of the Financial Requirements for Implementing India's Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, June 2020, please click here to access 

Worringham, Charles (2022): India’s Ethanol Roadmap Off Course, Accelerating Electric Vehicle Uptake Would Achieve Similar Goals Using a Fraction of the Land, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, March, please click here to access  

UNCTAD (2020): Developing countries pay environmental cost of electric car batteries, 22 July, please click here to access     

UNCTAD (2020): Commodities at a glance: Special issues on strategic battery raw materials, No. 13, please click here to access   

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), United Nations, 1992, please click here to access

Chand, Ramesh (2022): Tackling the crisis of rising global food prices, The Hindu, 14 June, please click here to access

Mousseau, Frederic (2022): A Global Food Crisis: Shortage Amidst Plenty, Inter Press Service (IPS), 30 May, 2022, please click here to access

Deshpande, Tanvi (2022): India’s target to have 20% ethanol blended in petrol by 2025 could affect its food security,, May 10, please click here to read more

Douglas, Leah (2022): U.S. corn-based ethanol worse for the climate than gasoline, study finds,, February 15, please click here to access

Jha, Prem Shankar (2021): Why switching to electric vehicles is fiscally imprudent, The Indian Express, 5 August, please click here to access 

Bhatti, Jasleen (2021): Is ethanol blending in petrol really green? Down to Earth blog, 23 July, please click here to access  

Marla, Soma (2021): Making Ethanol from Rice Hurts India’s Poor,, 12 July, please click here to access  

Ghanekar, Nikhil (2021): India's Looming Electric Vehicle Challenge: Spent Batteries, India Spend, 19 April, please click here to access

Gupta, Shourabh (2021): Rare earth metals are used extensively in clean energy technologies. But how safe are they? Down to Earth, 18 January, please click here to access  

What are BS-VI norms? Business Standard, please click here to access  

Mohile, Shally Seth (2017): BS VI: Challenges and opportunities for India’s auto industry,, 2 August, please click here to access

Tiwari, Geetam (2013): Metro Rail and the City: Derailing Public Transport, Economic and Political Weekly, 30 November, Vol XLVIII, no. 48, please click here to access

Image Courtesy: Inclusive Media for Change/ Shambhu Ghatak

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