Indian society, both on the market level as well as in the policy realm, is decidedly veering towards adopting Electric Vehicles (EVs) as the future of sustainable transport. Our societal focus to switch to EVs is undeniably based on the premise that climate change is real and imminent, and that society’s collective efforts must necessarily envision and develop alternate technologies to combat the increasing civilization threat we are all facing. The switch to EVs is entirely based on the understanding of the enormous problems created by our current fossil-fueled transport sector. The various schemes and subsidies announced by the Central Government have provided a significant impetus to the EV market in India, and if the Union Budget for 2022-2023 is any indication, this is only the beginning of a radical transition away from traditional fossil fuel-powered automobiles. However, this article will attempt to uncover the feasibility of an immediate and drastic shift to Electric Vehicles in the Indian market given our current and future societal needs, the raw materials associated with the manufacture of engine components for EVs, as well as the modalities associated with a switch to EVs given our current practices of Electricity generation. The article concludes that the current practices surrounding the manufacture of EVs and electricity generation have several systemic maladies that need to be addressed in order to truly create a sustainable transportation sector for India.
Globalization is currently predicated on the concept of transport. Predominantly, it involves a transfer of goods, services, and other tradable commodities, but it is also fundamentally rooted in the transfer of ideas, philosophies, and shared cultural values. India in the 21st century is ostensibly looking at the West for the solutions to some of our biggest problems. We look at neo-liberalism as a way out of systemic and sustained poverty, we think of an outright rejection of ascribed identities as means to transcend the demons of our social hierarchies, and much in the same vein, we are now increasingly focusing on Electric Vehicles (EVs) to reduce the contribution of carbon emissions by our transport sector. The United States automobile company ‘General Motors’ recently announced that by 2035, it is focusing to put an end to the sale of petrol and diesel operated models, similar to German automobile giant ‘Audi’, which has set an ambitious target of 2033. Various other automobile manufacturers have made similar claims, and it seems inevitable that EVs are going to be the engine driving our future. India is undoubtedly following suit, both on the market level, as well as through policy measures enforced by the Central Government.
Our societal focus to switch to EVs is undeniably based on the premise that climate change is real and imminent, and that society’s collective efforts must necessarily envision and develop alternate technologies to combat the increasing civilization threat we are all facing. The switch to EVs is entirely based on the understanding of the enormous problems created by our current fossil-fueled transport sector.The transport sector accounts for 18% of total energy consumption in India. This translates to an estimated 94 million tonnes of oil equivalent (MTOE) energy. As per the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, it is estimated that if India continues to consume energy at the current rate of consumption, then 200 MTOE of energy supply would be needed annually by the year 2030 to meet the demand of this sector. Presently, this demand is being met through imported domestic power generation and importation of crude oil, which makes this sector vulnerable to the volatile International, crude oil prices. Moreover, approximately 142 million tonnes of CO2 emissions are released annually, out of which 123 million tonnes is emitted solely by the road transport segment.’
We are all in agreement that something must be done to remedy the damage continually being caused to our atmosphere through the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as well as the inevitable injuries faced by our ecology, through the extraction and use of fossil fuels in its varied forms, and therefore, Indian society is slowly coming to the consensus that EVs are a potential solution to these problems. This tacit agreement is evident on the consumer level, with sales of EVs in 2021 shooting up to 3,11,360 units sold in the Indian automobile market – which is more than the combined sales of the two preceding years, i.e., 2020 and 2019 – as well as through declarations made, schemes launch, subsidies provided, and notifications issued by the Central Government indicating a shift in policy towards greater accessibility and manufacture of EVs.
Recently, the Ministry of Power issued “Charging Infrastructure for Electric Vehicles – Guidelines and Standards” in a move to develop the EV charging infrastructure nationwide. This is in addition to the existing ‘Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles in India (FAME-India) Scheme’ launched under the National Mission on Electric Mobility in 2011 and the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020. The Central Government has thereafterapproved Phase-II of the FAME Scheme with an outlay of Rs. 10,000 Crore that came into action from 1st April 2019 and will continue for a term of three years. The Central Government has alsonotified the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme as of 23rd September 2021, so as to encourage the industry to inject fresh investments for the indigenous global supply chain of Advanced Automotive Technology products. Furthermore, the recent Union Budget for the financial year 2022-2023 proposed by the Finance-Minister has also placed considerable importance on ensuring increased access to EV infrastructure. This includesproposals to reduce customs on key input commodities required in the manufacture of EVs, such as Nickel ore and concentrates, ferronickel, motor parts, etc., in addition to continual support to existing financial incentives under the FAME-II scheme, the PLI Scheme, and other alternative energy technologies cumulatively amounting to an excess of Rs. 50,000 Crores. The Finance Minister also made sure to include the proposal to create substantial infrastructurefor ‘battery swapping’. Notwithstanding the technical and commercial feasibility of the ‘battery swapping’ plan, it is patently evident that a significant amount of subsidies and other policy measures are being directed towards ensuring demand-driven growth in the EV market.
However, this article will attempt to uncover the feasibility of an immediate and drastic shift to Electric Vehicles in the Indian market given our current and future societal needs, the raw materials associated with the manufacture of engine components for EVs, as well as the modalities associated with a switch to EV given our current practices of Electricity generation.
EVs Are Currently Not as Eco-Friendly as Marketed
Our current societal shift towards EVs has been dubbed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as a “transition from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system”, as per their report titled ‘The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions’. It is evident that the future is likely to witness a tremendous surge in the number of EVs plying on Indian roads, each fitted with its own lithium-ion battery. As per the current technologies, a single-car lithium-ion battery contains around 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese, and 14 kg of cobalt, according to estimations made by the Argonne National Laboratory. It is also evident that Lithium-ion batteries are undeniably part of the future of EVs, as the cost of lithium-ion cells has plunged 97% since 1991, and as experts suggest, their cost-effectiveness is only bound to increase with further innovation and greater market penetration. This is a cause for concern due to the fact that any increase in demand for minerals is inextricably tied to an increase in mining for the same mineral. Currently, lithium is predominantly found in the South American Altiplano-Puna Plateau, also known as the ‘Lithium Triangle’, which is primarily made of ‘salt-flats’ that stretch across Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia and hold over 75% of the supply of lithium globally. Around 17% of the world’s lithium is found in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt-flat. This poses a unique risk to the native residents of these countries, as lithium mining often leads to substantial water loss, ground destabilization, biodiversity loss, increased salinity of rivers, and contamination of soil through toxic waste, all of which are problems currently being faced by the indigenous populations of these countries. InSalar de Uyuni, water loss is the main cause for concern as it is systematically driving up rates of desertification and droughts, and posing serious risks for native populations, most of whom do not view these practices as being sustainable in any real manner. It would be trite to say that the needs of native populations and indigenous communities have to be of primary importance while extracting natural resources from their lands, and they cannot be made a victim in our relentless pursuit of infinite growth. Furthermore, it is not just the native populations but global society that requires conservation of these salt flats, as they also perform severalecosystem services that are imperative such as nutrient absorption and amelioration of water quality, storm protection from flooding and erosion, carbon sequestration, and provide critical habitat for various species of fish, birds and other invertebrates, which are all vital for tackling climate change and mitigating its effects.
It is tremendously saddening, that lithium mining isn’t even the most worrying aspect of resource extraction required to make EVs. This is because the dangers associated with cobalt mining, another crucial mineral required for the manufacture of EVs, are even more deleterious than those associated with lithium. This is because two-thirds of the global supply of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has an egregious history of human rights violations with activists who have put forth concerns regarding conditions prevalent in the country such as the rising of number of the child laborers or how workers’ health and safety are disregarded. Furthermore, the reckless use of cobalt can lead to lethal consequences because it is toxic just like any other heavy metal. Every other mineral involved in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, such as nickel, iron, copper, and aluminum, also poses significant ecological risks and cannot be overlooked in our pursuit to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
There is also a serious lack of oversight in certain parts of these countries, when it comes to matters of human rights, proper and safe methods of mining, child labor practices, the management of toxic waste arising out of mining, etc. All these concerns have to be accounted for while the world continues to advocate for EVs, lest we risk making the same mistakes made in the past. It is important that we don’t forget that over-extraction and a lack of respect for natural resources is one of the most definitive causes of our current climate crisis. However, it is not just South American and African countries wherein safe management and handling of electronic waste pose an issue. It is also one that is endemic to India. According to a report published by the apex administrative body responsible for the management and abatement of pollution, ie., the Central Pollution Control Board, India generated 1,014,961.2 tonnes of e-waste for the financial year 2019-2020.
Several regulations have been issued by the Central Government for the management and disposal of e-waste such as the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Amendment Rules, 2003, Guidelines for Environmentally Sound Management of E-waste, 2008, and E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. However, it is estimated that despite these regulations in place, close to 80 percent of e-waste is still handled and disposed off by the informal sector, without the proper infrastructure for its safe management. Such improperly disposed off e-waste poses a significant risk to the environment in the form of contamination of soil and water resources, leading to a whole host of health and conservation issues that are not adequately mitigated. It has been estimated that e-waste in India is burgeoning at a compound annual growth rate of around 30%.As per a report published by the ASSOCHAM, e-waste generation in the year 2016 was 1.8 MT per annum and was expected to reach 5.2 MT per annum by 2020.
However, it is believed that it is currently too expensive to ensure adequate handling and safe disposal infrastructure for e-waste for proprietors of recycling units and licensed waste handlers. Although India currently has an estimated 178 registered e-waste recyclers, most of which aren’t recycling waste but are instead storing it in hazardous conditions, without sufficient capacities to handle the e-waste collected. As per a newspaper report by senior journalist Jacob Koshy,the Environment Ministry had conducted checks at 11 registered recyclers and one unregistered recycler in 2018. Koshy states that “the recyclers were located in Kanpur, Thane (Mumbai), Vapi (Gujarat), Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Alwar (Rajasthan). The checks led the Ministry to conclude in its report that “…a number of transgressions were seen committed by the recycling facilities such as adopting non-environmentally sound methods of storage, handling and processing of e-waste…non-compliance with guidelines of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)… Certain recycling facilities were non-operational or seemed to be inadequate to handle the capacity of e-waste,” says a letter by the Environment Ministry to the CPCB.”
There are several issues surrounding the enforcement of regulations regarding management, handling, and disposal of e-waste, which have to be addressed before we ramp up production of EVs and provide subsidies in the manner currently being done. It is evident that India has some ways to go before it can claim to be a proper and safe handler of domestic e-waste. Ensuring that an appropriate regulatory regime is in place is crucial to avoid a calamity revolving around e-waste disposal and further degradation of sensitive ecosystems, affecting key natural resources and lives of humans of India, as well as the potential for economic prosperity.
Electricity Generation in India is Predominantly Thermal Power Based
India’s installed generation capacity is primarily fueled through fossil fuels – Coal, Lignite, Gas, and Dieselcurrently account for nearly 60% of India’s total capacity, as of 31.12.2021. Under the present narrative, EVs are being touted as the solution that was required to achieve sustainable transport. However, if 2 out of every 3 units of power currently being generated in India is through the process of exploitation and development of fossil fuels, one cannot reasonably contend that electricity generated in India is truly a ‘green’ alternative. While it is true that EVs avoid the problems stemming from tailpipe emissions, thermal power plants in India are undoubtedly one of the most polluting entities, if not the most polluting. A2014 paper published in reputed journal Science Direct states that “In 2010–11, 111 plants with an installed capacity of 121 GW, consumed 503 million tons of coal, and generated an estimated 580 ktons of particulates with diameter less than 2.5 μm (PM2.5), 2100 ktons of sulfur dioxides, 2000 ktons of nitrogen oxides, 1100 ktons of carbon monoxide, 100 ktons of volatile organic compounds, and 665 million tons of carbon dioxide. These emissions resulted in an estimated 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and 20.0 million asthma cases from exposure to PM2.5 pollution, which cost the public and the government an estimated INR 16,000 to 23,000 crore (USD 3.2 to 4.6 billion).”
Furthermore, each thermal power plant creates tremendous amounts of fly ash as a by-product of its coal-powered generation.It is estimated that India’s fly ash production increased to 129.09 million tonnes in the first half of 2019-20 from 93.26 million tonnes in the first half of 2018-19. In 2018-19, India generated 217.04 million tons of fly ash. Such fly-ash is criminally under-utilized and mismanaged, which has led to a whole host of problems for residents of areas adjoining thermal power plants. Ash pond breaches leading to water pollution and destruction of agricultural lands, as well as a multiplicity of resultant health problems, are a documented but oft-neglected menace associated with thermal power generation. As per arecent report published by Health Energy Initiative, there were 76 cases of ash ponds breached between 2010 and 2020, however, several ‘routine’ ash ponds breaches are estimated to have gone unreported owing to poor oversight and lack of systemic checks. These issues need to be front and center of policy and law before we assume that EVs will provide the sustainable transport alternative the world needs rights now.
We have to realize that sustainable transport in India has to be predominantly veering away from a supply-side solution, to a demand-driven one. Every technological alternative invented to deal with carbon emissions and polluting practices will necessarily involve the use of natural resources such as minerals, water, and land. In order to truly create a future with sustainable transport, our focus has to shift to a greater focus on demanding better public transport, seeking more efficient and accessible cycling infrastructure, designing and planning our cities’ centers and urban spaces which allow for pedestrian thoroughfare, and encourage such options. Sustainable transport in India has to necessarily go beyond EVs because although it is undoubtedly a step up from traditional Internal Combustion engines which emit greenhouse gas emissions, it is still based in a society with systemic maladies which must be addressed. If electricity being generated in India is as polluting as that arising out of traditional automobiles, then we haven’t yet devised a truly sustainable transportation alternative. As a recentGuardian report concluded, “It’s important to remember that we can have a sustainable product situated within an unsustainable system”. Until we remedy certain fundamental systemic issues, we are only delaying inevitable climate and health crises, not preventing them.
About the Author
Mr. Maitreya Prithwiraj Ghorpade is an Environmental Law Practitioner.
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Preferred Method of Citation
Maitreya Prithwiraj Ghorpade, “The Future of Sustainable Transport in India: Why Electric Vehicles May not be the Fix we Need” (IJPIEL, 9 March 2022)