Takeaways from ICCT’s recent roundtable on low- and zero-emission zones in India

Zero-emission vehicles
Clean air

The need to transition to a zero-emission on-road vehicle fleet and the various pathways for implementing low- and zero-emission zones in India were the focus of a roundtable hosted by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) in New Delhi on February 13, 2023. The one-day event was moderated by ICCT India Managing Director Amit Bhatt and it brought together a variety of stakeholders who discussed their research and experiences.

In the opening presentation, ICCT Executive Director Drew Kodjak shared our research showing that zero-emission vehicles—that is, battery electric and fuel cell electric vehicles—are the only way to achieve near-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the road transportation sector. He discussed low-emission zones in Brussels and London and talked about the wide-ranging remote sensing initiatives that ICCT has led as part of The Real Urban Emissions (TRUE) Initiative. Important data was captured in each of the remote sensing campaigns and results were subsequently used in policies in Poland and London.

In addition to Mr. Kodjak, the plenary speakers were Surender Singh Yadav, special commissioner of police (traffic), Delhi; Ashish Kundra, principal secretary cum commissioner of the Transport Department, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi; and Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director of Research and Advocacy at the Center for Science and Environment. The discussion that followed the plenary included representatives from CEEW, Artha Global, ITDP India, HSA Advocates, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, Open Philanthropy, TERI, Raahgiri Foundation, WRI India, GIZ, and ICLEI.

ICCT directors and guests seated around a table at the February 13, 2023 event in New Delhi.

Ashish Kundra, in the center holding the microphone, speaks during the plenary session. Photo by Anuj Dhole.

According to Mr. Kundra, 40% of new two-wheeler sales and 60% of new three-wheeler sales in Delhi were electric in 2022. He also said that Delhi’s target is to install 18,000 public chargers for electric vehicles by 2025. Although there are advancements in electric vehicles, there are limitations in measuring combustion engine vehicles’ real-world emissions under the current pollution under control (PUC) certificate program, he explained. For example, it is possible to get a valid certificate even if the vehicle does not meet the emissions criteria by not inserting the sampling probe into the tailpipe of the vehicle fully, as this dilutes the emissions sample with ambient air. Also, PUC testing is done when the vehicle is idling and its emissions when operating at loaded conditions on the road are not captured. The government is thus partnering with the TRUE Initiative to carry out a remote sensing campaign in the National Capital Region (NCR) to measure the real-world emissions of more than 100,000 vehicles. When talking about creating a comprehensive, long-term plan for a low-emission zone in Delhi, Mr. Kundra said the biggest challenge was to determine which vehicles to target. For example, is the Bharat Stage III car fleet more polluting than the Bharat Stage IV truck fleet? The remote sensing study will help answer this question.

Mr. Yadav, the special commissioner of traffic, talked about his experience with enforcement challenges, including the low rate of payment of challans issued by the traffic police in Delhi. Because only about 3% to 4% of these are recovered currently, the efficacy of any future low-emission zones will be threatened if the zones are not strictly enforced. To address the existing lack of enforcement, a proposal has been sent to the central government to link the payment of challans to things like the vehicle’s insurance renewal, PUC certificate, and re-registration. According to Mr. Yadav, low-emission zones should primarily be implemented to improve air quality and public health, and not so much to boost private electric vehicle uptake. He also highlighted congestion and driving indiscipline in Delhi as more challenges to address.

In thinking about low-emission zones in the context of the pedestrianization of Chandni Chowk, a project undertaken as part of the redevelopment of the entire Chandni Chowk area, Ms. Roychowdhury said an area-based approach would be more effective in abating vehicular pollution than a street-based approach. She also suggested that pollution hotspots should be identified in cities through a number of monitoring stations. Jaipur, for example, monitors air pollution in 2 km by 2 km zones. Complementary measures like parking restrictions and pricing, congestion management, and road infrastructure development and planning to prevent thoroughfare in Delhi were also suggested by Ms. Roychowdhury.

To kickstart the broader discussion that followed the plenary, I presented ICCT’s upcoming work on the legal pathways available in India for implementing low- and zero-emission zones. I talked about five major pathways at the national, state, and city levels. Our work also focused on laws in Maharashtra that empower the state and city governments to implement low- and zero-emission zones without any policy push from the center.

Shailendra Kumar from HSA Advocates, which helped ICCT with this study, described multiple provisions in Indian laws that are part of the potential pathways for implementing low- and zero-emission zones in the country. He also talked about the government’s lack of proactive action for abating vehicular emissions and how, historically, the courts have stepped in and directed the government to take action.

Other participants discussed some challenges they’ve encountered, and the lack of reliable data was frequently identified as the biggest. Some participants suggested implementing low- or zero-emission zones soon, even if on a smaller scale than is ultimately the goal, to get residents accustomed to such measures. Finding ways to get residents, local businesses, and local institutions to participate in their implementation was also suggested as important for success. Participants further emphasized how important it is that zones be complementary to other measures and policies such as congestion management, parking management, charging infrastructure development, updating building codes, communication, and promoting non-motorized transport and public transport.

I’d say the most important takeaway from the roundtable was that implementing low- and zero-emission zones is possible in India using current legal frameworks. Delhi already has many features similar to a low-emission zone with measures like a graded response action plan that’s implemented as an emergency measure whenever the region’s air quality deteriorates, a ban on old petrol and diesel vehicles, and an environmental compensation charge on diesel trucks and light commercial vehicles. There is also Kevadia in Gujarat, which was declared an electric vehicle-only area in 2021; following that, the governing body in Kevadia procured electric three-wheelers and set up charging stations.

Many organizations are working on low- and zero-emission zones in Indian cities and ICCT is pleased to host events like these, which can help guide our collective efforts to abate vehicular pollution.