Electric Vehicles (EVs) are gaining popularity in India, as in the rest of the world. Governments are actively subsidizing their growth. Why? Surely that’s a no-brainer! It’s because EVs are Green. EVs are perceived to be clean, green and environment friendly unlike the existing vehicles based on the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). There are no tailpipe emissions. No harmful gases like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides nor particulate matters are emitted into the air that we breathe. There is no noise in running the vehicle. Why, EVs even have green number-plates!
Yet there are people who are not convinced. Occasional reports in sections of the media question the greenness of EVs. The naysayers point out that both the mining of the rare earths needed for making the battery of the electric vehicles, and also the manufacturing process itself generate sizable toxic wastes and polluted water. Disposal of used batteries results in significant e-waste. Even the running of the vehicle is not pollution free, if the source of the electricity needed to charge the vehicle is produced from sources like coal that cause atmospheric pollution.
These questions are important for India. Greater acceptability and environmental consciousness has seen the production and sales of EVs zooming. In 2021, reportedly 2.3 lakh electric two wheelers and about 17,000 four wheelers hit the roads. Government has targeted raising the share of EVs in total vehicles to 30% by 2030. Are we on the right path?
Some of these concerns had been voiced even when the scheme for Faster Adoption of Manufacturing of Electric vehicles (FAME) was launched seven years ago. At the time I was with the Government of India’s department of heavy industry. It was then the casethat most of the electricity generated in India was from coal-fired thermal plants. Even today, according to official reports, about 70% of electricity generated is from thermal plants, which are by definition polluting. This means that 70% of the additional electricity requirement for electric vehicles is causing pollution somewhere in the country.
Against this argument were two important considerations, from an India-centric perspective. The first was the pressing problem of urban atmospheric pollution partially caused by ever growing auto tailpipe emissions. Notably, EVs are almost entirely used in urban areas. And the second was the consequent growing demand for fossil fuels, over 84% of which has to be imported. Faster adoption of EVs would help in making a dent on both these problems. It was therefore decided to go ahead with the scheme, which essentially incentivizes manufacturers to produce electric vehicles.
These considerations remain valid today.
Yes, the mining and manufacturing of batteries, particularly the popular lithium ion batteries used in EVs, does produce toxic waste, some of it apparently radioactive. As it happens, China is the leader in the field, with 80% of the batteries required by the world produced there. Again, from a purely country-specific environmental perspective, it is better that these batteries are produced somewhere else, and imported as required. There is of course a trade off with the strategic perspective, since this leads to dependency of a vital EV input on a not-so friendly country!
E-waste will be an issue as the numbers of EV on the road grow. EV numbers in India are still relatively small. For example, China has a projected annual electric car demand of 3 million, compared to India’s total four wheeler sales of just around 17,000 last year.There is time to put in place waste disposal and recycling norms before there is a serious problem.
A recent study for the U.S. found that taking everything into account over a vehicle lifecycle, an EV has a carbon footprint of just 55% of its ICE counterpart. Figures for India may be somewhat different, but this number does give an idea of the order of magnitude. In addition, it’s good if adopting EVs can bring down the harm being caused to our population by atmospheric pollution, and reduce our excessive reliance on imported crude oil. At the present juncture, there are no other commercially viable vehicle technologies that have these twin advantages over the existing ICEs.
The policy direction is therefore correctly towards encouraging the shift to EVs as a cleaner mode of road transportation. Complementary initiatives will help. There is already a strong push towards renewable energy. By 2030, the share of non-fossil fuel (“clean”) sources inelectricity generation in the country is expected to be 50%. Domestic research efforts in India’s top institutions are underway to substitute lithium ion with equally efficient, less toxic alternatives to powering EV batteries. The regulatory framework and ecosystem for E-waste management, reuse and recycling of EV batteries is something that has to be put in place over the next few years.
The overall picture of how green and clean are EVs thus cannot be framed in black and white. Taking all the pluses and minuses into account, the picture is however still green, though perhaps a darker shade of green than commonly thought to be!
(The author is a former civil servant who has also served with the World Bank. He writes by invitation for RK)