Climate and Transport

For the first time, Indian regulators are faced with this explicit connection – curb local air pollution to save lives, and at the same time, shrink carbon and energy imprints of vehicles to save fuels and the climate. But this synergy is the weakest link in our policies today. We are caught in serious trade-offs instead.

Overall transport sector in India is estimated to emit about 15 percent of the CO2 emissions. But consider this – the total consumption of oil is responsible for 57 per cent of the CO2 in the country today. And among all oil-consuming sectors, CO2 emissions from transport are increasing at the fastest rate – at more than 6 per cent per annum. This is daunting for any national combat plan for climate and public health. Even globally, curbing warming gases from the transport sector has proven to be the most difficult. How can we avoid increase in GHG gases if cars drive the trend?

India must build on its inherent strength – high usage of public transport, walking and cycling in cities. In India’s key metro cities public transport still meets a large share of commuting demand—88 per cent in Mumbai, 76 per cent in Kolkata, 70 per cent in Chennai, and 62 per cent in Delhi. Even today anywhere between 16 to 57 percent of daily commuting trips in our cities is walk trips. But wrong car centric polices are already signaling disaster. On average, by 2030, Indians will travel thrice as many kilometers as they traveled during 2000-01. If neglected the impressive modal share of public transport may drop from 75.7 per cent in 2001-02 to 44.7 per cent in 2030-31.

The current policy obsession with more roads, more parking spaces and more fiscal sops will only bring more cars. Public policies must avert this. The International Energy Agency estimates a 100 per cent difference in oil use in a future scenario dominated by high quality bus systems as opposed to personal vehicles in Delhi. Likewise, the Asian Development Bank projects that Bangalore can save 21 per cent of fuel consumption if it increases its share of public transport from the current 62 per cent to 80 per cent. Clearly, cities cannot afford to trade-off car restraint policies for car-centric growth.

Governments around the world are framing policies to push commuters to use buses, subways, trains, bikes, or even walk: to dampen the insatiable need for energy, free up road space from congestion and clean up the air. But our fiscal regulators have not understood this inherent strength. Tax policies are so distorted that public transport is made to bear a disproportionately high tax burden. A 2004 World Bank estimate shows that the total tax burden per vehicle kilometre is 2.3 times higher for public transport buses than cars in Indian cities. The annual road tax a bus pays in Delhi is higher than the one-time road tax a car pays in any given year.

The government must not overlook that wrong policies incite more oil guzzling and CO2 emissions in the rebound. For instance, cheap diesel also leads to more driving. Diesel fuel also has higher carbon content. Result - more CO2 from more fuel burnt. Look at the UK -- between 1996 and 2005, and despite improvements in fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions from private cars rose by 4 per cent because of a 10 per cent increase in driving distances. Even particulate reduction benefits reduced. And now science also implicates black carbon emissions from diesel vehicles as a potent greenhouse pollutant!

India made the biggest mistake in not setting fuel economy standards for vehicles early. This has serious implications for the growing GHG emissions at this explosive stage of motorsation.

There is no reason why India must remain entangled in clean air vs. low carbon growth trade-offs, when solutions exist to resolve them. The choice is clear – and it’s certainly not the one between clean air and hot air. We need aggressive roadmap for sustainable mobility to reduce usage of cars and increase ridership of public transport, and aggressive measures on fuel economy standards and clean emissions standards.