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India must not squander this chance of electrifying its urban bus transit system and should take care to avoid the mistakes it made while converting diesel-run buses to CNG

An electric bus run by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (Photo by Ramesh M.G.)

An electric bus run by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (Photo by Ramesh M.G.)

Back in 1980, Shenzen was a small fishing village in China with 30,000 residents. Today it’s a mega-metropolis of nearly 13 million people. But the economic turnaround did affect the city’s air quality. In 2016, it’s average PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns) concentration was at 27 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³). It was nearly three times the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s annual limit of 10 µg/m³.

Shezhen was then selected as one of the first Chinese cities where new air pollution control methods would be implemented. Clean and more widely available public transport was a piece of the puzzle, so its diesel buses were shut down and replaced with electric buses.

In 2017 Shenzen became the world’s first city to have a 100% electric bus fleet. They numbered 16,539 in May 2018, and have improved the city’s air quality by cutting 1.3 million tons in annual emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and 432 tonnes of deadly particulate matter (PM). Shenzen’s 12,518 taxis will follow suit by 2020.

This points to an important lesson: electric vehicles (EVs), and particularly electric buses, are not just a no-brainer for climate action because of their zero emissions. They also make a sizeable difference to urban air quality.

Having learnt from China, Germany, France and Norway have announced targets to phase out all petrol and diesel-powered vehicles by 2050. Meanwhile London levies a congestion charge on such vehicles entering the city – while exempting EVs – to safeguard its air, while Los Angeles is targeting 100% of its vehicles to be emissions-free by 2050. Its underlying motive is to reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, but its air quality will undoubtedly benefit.

India – air quality and climate action

India’s horrendous urban air quality has been much talked about. In 2018, WHO estimated that Delhi’s average PM10 concentration for 2010-2016 was 292 µg/m³. Beijing in comparison – despite its infamous air quality – was at 92.

The WHO’s annual average safe limit for PM10 20 µg/m³. Beyond this people can suffer from minor breathing issues to fatal respiratory diseases, cardiac disorders and the risk of various types of cancer.

An analysis by the medial journal Lancet Planetary Health confirmed the correlation when it attributed the deaths of 1.24 million Indians in 2017 to air pollution. A study by the University of Chicago in 2018 warned that the life expectancy for Delhi’s residents had dropped by up to 10 years.

These are shocking figures. The country also posted a 4.8% rise in carbon emissions in 2018. The news comes when climate scientists are urging that all countries, and especially the major economies, slash their emissions to stave off catastrophic climate change.

Thankfully, urgent calls for action on both fronts have led to two major policy announcements: the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) – notified in January 2019 – and India’s target of 30% EV sales by 2030. Both target a nationwide crackdown on emissions, and as studies suggest, will complement each other perfectly.

Cities and states leading the way

Dehradun, Chandigarh and Guwahati ran pilots in 2018 on using electric buses for public transport. Each city reported positive results on operability, servicing and economics. Electric buses will now be inducted into their fleets in the following numbers: Dehradun 500 (inter-city), Chandigarh 20 and Guwahati 25.

In terms of the states, 1,000 electric buses are scheduled to enter service in Delhi in September 2019 as part of its 2018 EV policy. The West Bengal government has ordered 80 buses, 20 of which have already been delivered, while Karnataka will induct 3,000 electric buses into its fleet by 2022.

In Maharashtra, Pune is currently running 25 e-buses and plans to induct a total of 480 in 2019, while in Mumbai four e-buses have been running since 2017. And as a testament to their utility in difficult terrain, 50 e-buses have also been ordered for mountainous Himachal Pradesh, which ran its first e-bus pilot in 2017.

Clearly, therefore, electric buses have graduated from being an experiment to public workhorses.

Lessons from the CNG experiment

However, India has to be careful that it does not repeat its failure with compressed natural gas (CNG) – where the gains in air quality were frittered away due to “dieselization”.

When Delhi’s 10,000-strong city bus fleet was converted from diesel to CNG by December 2002, there was a notable drop in the PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), SO2 (sulphur dioxide) and CO (carbon monoxide) concentrations in the city’s air. In fact, for a few months, Delhi had the world’s cleanest public transport system.

However, unrestricted registrations of diesel-powered SUVs, crossovers and even mid-segment family cars quickly worsened the city’s air quality as particulate matter pollution shot up again. So did the concentration of NOx – which is a by-product of the incomplete combustion of diesel.

Thus, even though vehicular pollution was not the only factor, within just over a decade Delhi went from holding an unusually pleasant accolade to a city choking everyone within reach.

How not to repeat past failures

Being a new technology – much like CNG was back in 2001 – electric buses (and EVs in general) have faced a number of issues.

For some time it was the chicken and egg situation of what to build first: the fleet or the charging points. Without adequate numbers for one, the other would make no sense. The entry of established names like NTPC, BHEL, Tata Power and Reliance Power in setting up charging infrastructure has, however, allayed fears.

Safety is another key issue that needs to be communicated well. A few cases of the CNG buses catching fire had fanned wild rumours about their on-road safety and dented many a private customer’s willingness to switch over.

Such incidents can also offer detractors – such as auto manufacturers still resistant to abandoning the internal combustion engine – the opportunity to influence public opinion. The automakers would of course fight for their billions of dollars of investments at stake, but real-world testing has proved that electric buses (and other EVs) are ready for deployment.

In fact an excellent example of this is China’s BYD. The firm not only leads China’s sales figures in electric cars, but its electric buses now ferry passengers in 300 cities worldwide. Back in India, several of Tata’s electric buses have been ordered for their reliability, while Olectra has tied-up with BYD and is running 40 e-buses in Hyderabad.

What India needs to do

While the switch from diesel to CNG was an outcome of judicial activism, electric mobility in India was born with countrywide policy support. That’s a vital head-start, but to ensure that the momentum is not lost, our policy makers must ensure that:

  • The technology is tested for every possible operating condition (heat, humidity, traffic densities, terrain etc.).
  • The central and state governments play a pro-active role in working with the industry to refine the products. Hands-off involvement won’t help.
  • Partnerships are forged with credible research and certification establishments (like the IITs, CSIRs and ARAI) to disseminate easily palatable and unbiased information to all stakeholders.
  • There must also be a conscious effort made to weed out any misinformation that tarnishes the image of an otherwise reliable product.

Crucially, India is also well positioned to power all EV charging infrastructure solely by clean energy. Therefore, given this golden opportunity, the country must reflect on its past errors and work towards getting it right this time. The rewards of public health benefits and strong climate action are just too crucial to be squandered.

Aniruddha Bhattacharjee is a researcher at Climate Trends.

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