India’s plans to decarbonise the heavy duty transport segments of aviation, shipping and trucking are still at a nascent stage. New policies are needed to ensure and support their transition to clean energy for India to meet its climate change pledges, according to several studies and climate change policy experts.

Aviation, shipping and trucking’s reliance on oil – and natural gas – based fuels make these sectors among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) globally, accounting for one-fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions, per an October 2020 report by Washington DC-based public policy research non-profit Brookings Institution.

In India, the aviation and shipping segments at present account for negligible emissions when compared to trucks, four-wheelers and buses, reflecting their lower use compared to road and rail transport, according to a June 2022 study by New Delhi-based public policy think tank – Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Greenhouse gases emission from the transport sector, however, are expected to increase at a much faster rate in developing countries alongside rising income, population and urbanisation, says a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unless sustainable emissions mitigation policies are implemented, emissions from the sector could increase at a faster rate than any other energy-using sector, the report added.

Nowhere are such policies needed more urgently than in India, a country highly vulnerable to climate change and already experiencing extreme climate events. 2050 is a red letter year for climate change action. By that year, the world must achieve net-zero emissions [which means emissions should either be eliminated or absorbed rather than released into the atmosphere] to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Also by that year, India is expected to be the second-largest economy, after China. Already the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, India will need to strike a balance between the increasing energy demands of economic growth and the transition to clean energy, IndiaSpend reported in April 2021.

To illustrate, with economic growth, more Indians will increasingly choose air for domestic travel, per Council on Energy, Environment and Water, which projected that air travel’s 2% share of domestic passenger traffic in 2020 would rise to 11% in 2050. But the sector is energy-intensive. That 2% share of passengers amounted to an 8% share in total energy consumption by the transport sector in 2020. India will thus need strategies to enable air travel’s transition to clean energy, if it is to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment that India would get to a net-zero emissions goal by 2070. This commitment was announced at the 26th climate change conference held in Glasgow, United Kingdom in November 2021.

Ahead of 27th climate change conference, which will get under way in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on November 6, we examined how India is planning to decarbonise its heavy duty transport segments, and found that these segments’ transition to clean energy is not straightforward.

While passenger transport vehicles, such as four-wheelers, three-wheelers, two-wheelers and buses, will see a structural transition to electric vehicles by 2050 in India, per the Council on Energy, Environment and Water study, shifts in heavy duty transport will take much more time because of either a lack of technology or steep costs of existing alternatives.

“These sectors are hard-to-abate [abatement refers to technologies used to curb pollution], which means there are no easy, low-carbon alternatives available yet. Alternatives that are thought of are also very expensive or not yet commercially viable,” says Ramya Natarajan, research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, a Bengaluru-based sustainability think-tank. “For instance, with current technology, we cannot electrify aeroplanes because this will require very heavy batteries. So developing low carbon alternatives at scale for aviation is difficult with current technology.”

IndiaSpend has asked the ministries of civil aviation, of ports, shipping and waterways, and of road transport for their plans to decarbonise these sectors. We will update the article when we receive their response.

Emission-heavy transport

Globally, the transport sector is the most reliant on fossil fuels, accounting for 37% of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency , an intergovernmental organisation working to shape energy policies.

In India, too, the transport sector accounts for 13.5% of all energy-related emissions, the third highest after the industrial and residential sectors, according to a 2020 study by Climate Action Tracker, an independent climate-change policies tracker. These emissions stem mainly from road transport, which accounts for 90% of the Indian transport sector’s total final energy consumption, followed by rail and domestic aviation, with 4% each, per a 2020 International Energy Agency study.

Source: India Transport Energy Outlook, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, New Delhi, July 2022

Council on Energy, Environment and Water says this growth in demand for transport vehicles is expected to grow parallel to India’s economic growth.

Road transport includes passenger transport and freight (commercial cargo) carried by trucks. Freight movement in India has increased 125% between 2005 and 2020, according to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. This growth is largely dominated by freight carried by trucks than by rail and domestic shipping. India’s trucking market is expected to grow four-fold by 2050, according to a September 2022 report by government think-tank Niti Aayog and RMI, an international nonprofit working to transform energy systems.

Similarly, while aviation at present accounts for 4% of transport sector energy consumption, this has been consistently growing over the years. For instance, carbon dioxide emissions from Indian airlines reportedly increased by 63% from 2012 to 18.9 million tons in 2019. The emissions declined in 2020, but this is largely attributed to air travel restrictions during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.

By 2050, the aviation industry’s energy use and emissions will grow significantly to almost half of total transport energy use, per the Council on Energy, Environment and Water study. This means that “domestic aviation will become highly critical for decarbonisation of the Indian transport sector”, the study noted.

Decarbonising trucking sector

Under the net-zero scenarios, emissions from the transport sector in India should fall significantly. This means that not only should the share of electric vehicles increase, but 79% of trucks in India’s freight transport should also go electric, the rest being run on hydrogen, according to a 2021 Council on Energy, Environment and Water study on the implications of a net-zero target for India’s energy transition and climate policies. Along with this, the share of biofuel blend in oil for trucks and aeroplanes must touch 84% by 2070.

Over the past two decades, India has invested in road infrastructure, expanding and constructing new national and state highways. This improved road infrastructure has also increased the freight delivery by road, and trucking is an easier transport sector for emissions mitigation compared to air travel, say experts.

“The truck sector is better placed, compared to the aviation sector, in India’s decarbonisation trajectory,” said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, fellow at Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “In the truck segment, besides long distance, peri-urban, intracity and short distance transport are also part of the whole logistic chain.”

India’s Sustainable Habitat Mission in the National Action Plan on Climate Change encourages research and development in biofuels, including hydrogen as a potential future energy source for the transport sector. Two alternatives for zero-emissions trucks are currently being explored in India: battery-charged electric trucks and fuel cell electric trucks which use electricity powered by green hydrogen, according to the Niti Aayog-RMI study.

“While battery electric trucks are coming up in other countries, they face the weight challenge, since installing large batteries would reduce the cargo payload the e-trucks can carry, thereby impacting revenue,” said Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy’s Natarajan.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has been supporting the research, development and demonstration of green hydrogen, as a possible option for use in fuel for trucking. But developing hydrogen as an energy vector comes with challenges in production, storage, technology development, infrastructure etc., IndiaSpend reported in September 2021. Currently, the production costs for low-carbon hydrogen are still higher than fossil-fuel based hydrogen or other fossil-fuel equivalents.

“India is also planning to increase the share of railways to shift freight transport from road to rail. Indian Railways also announced a 2030 net-zero target, backed by targeted action towards electrification, dedicated freight corridors etc. to improve efficiency,” said Natarajan.

It will still be impossible, however, for all freight by road to transition to railways because of poor last-mile connectivity in India and dearth of railways in certain isolated regions, she added.

Further, freight transport by rail is more expensive than truck transport and the rail network is also congested, as it is utilised by both passenger and freight services, requiring a policy shift to make it more cost effective and efficient, according to the 2022 CEEW study.

Alternative aviation fuel

In the aviation sector, India is banking on sustainable fuel-powered airlines and increased digitisation in airports, say experts. Sustainable aviation fuel is any fuel that has the potential to generate lower carbon emissions over the working life of an aircraft, compared to standard jet fuel. “Sustainable aviation fuel is made from resources like cooking oil or biomass residues which can be blended with fossil fuel in aeroplanes to reduce emissions,” Natarajan said.

The concept is still at a nascent stage in India. In April 2022, aviation minister Jitendra Singh launched the National Funding Opportunity on Sustainable Aviation Fuels for research, development. In September, Air India, AirAsia India and Vistara airlines signed a memorandum of understanding with the Council Of Scientific And Industrial Research–Indian Institute Of Petroleum, Dehradun to collaborate on research, development and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels. In 2018, SpiceJet reportedly operated on a flight which had a blend of 75% aviation turbine fuel and 25% biofuel made from the jatropha plant.

“In aviation, experiments have been conducted in small aeroplanes that fly small distances. But again, we do not have technology at the moment for long distances and bigger planes,” said Chaturvedi. “And most of the flights in the aviation segment are bigger and long distance flights.”

Green shipping

There have been some efforts to control emissions from the global shipping industry. The International Maritime Organization says it aims to reduce international shipping carbon emissions per transport work by at least 40% by 2030, and 70% by 2050, off the 2008 baseline.

In India, at present, shipping contributes a negligible share in emissions. But in January 2022, the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways announced an initiative for green ports and green shipping under the Maritime India Vision 2030 to reduce the maritime industry’s carbon dioxide emissions. The project aims to promote a green ecosystem, such as use of renewable power for port activities.

At the same time, however, port expansion activities have bypassed environmental regulations and caused considerable damage to the coastal ecosystem, such as declining fish catch and soil erosion, IndiaSpend reported in June 2020.

The ministry is also exploring possibilities for deploying fully electric and hydrogen-fuelled ferries on inland waterways for river cruise tourism, according to a January 2022 statement.

“In smaller water transport, batteries there can carry that kind of load,” said Chaturvedi. “In large systems, it is very difficult to have that kind of battery storage capacity.”

New policies

Chaturvedi from Council on Energy, Environment and Water told us that while electrification or alternative fuel technology is well advanced for short distance in heavy duty travel segments, long distance travel is the challenge. “There is also a safety issue when it comes to adapting such technology for heavy load and long distance segments. Because if a truck breaks down in the middle of the journey, it is still okay, but a flight cannot break down mid-air,” he said.

But, Narayankumar Sreekumar, associate director of the electric mobility programme at the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, New Delhi, insists that for even light-duty trucks, there is a dearth of incentives to create demand, such as reducing the purchase price of electric trucks, waiving road tax for electric trucks, etc., that will help in faster adoption. “Budget allocations for the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid and) Electric Vehicles in India scheme, which focuses on creating an electric vehicle ecosystem, have increased over the years. But it does not incentivise light-duty trucks.”

In the transport decarbonisation process, bio-fuels are the major alternatives India is relying on. In 2018, the Union cabinet introduced the National Policy on Biofuels. Ethanol is one of the principal biofuels naturally produced by the fermentation of sugars by yeasts or via petrochemical processes. Ethanol can be blended into petrol to reduce the quantity of petrol required to run a vehicle, thus reducing dependency on imported, costly and polluting petroleum, IndiaSpend reported in May 2022.

However, trucks in India largely run on diesel and compressed natural gas. Experts like Natarajan suggest that apart from focusing on ethanol, the government should also focus on other alternative biofuels like biodiesel that is derived from vegetable oil.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.