Vehicle electrification in India: On ambition and timing

Electrification Tracking progress
Clean air
Emissions modeling

The fourth in a blog series focused on our meta-study of India’s road transport emissions analyses.

In the previous blog, we found two kinds of trajectories in the mitigation scenarios, one where road transport emissions continue to rise until 2050 and another where emissions peak by 2030 or 2040 and then decline. Models in the first group are from the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), and they consider rather conservative levels of electrification and modest efficiency improvements. In the other group are models that assume ambitious electrification and efficiency improvements extending up until mid-century.

From this it’s pretty clear that electrification is a key component of any future in which the growth in transport emissions is reversed, and so this blog will discuss it further. How much electrification is needed across vehicle classes and is there any reason for delay?

Figure 1. Road transport energy consumption by fuel across different vehicle segments between 2020 and 2050 in the models’ High Ambition scenarios.

We previously discussed the similarities in how models foresee electrification unfolding across different vehicle categories, and this is shown above in Figure 1. For instance, for the models that address electrification in the two- and three-wheeler segments, there’s a great degree of confidence that these will be the forerunners in vehicle electrification. ICCT and IEA’s High Ambition scenarios expect the light-duty vehicle segment or cars to electrify following two- and three-wheelers. Other models expect electrification of buses to follow two-wheeler and three-wheeler electrification and for light-duty vehicles to follow buses. This seems highly plausible given the government’s strong policy push regarding bus electrification and also international experience pointing in the same direction. Some of the early signs are already visible, as transit agencies such as Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation are considering electrifying their entire bus fleet by 2030.

We also observed some differences, and these are especially stark for freight. While some of the models do not expect significant electrification to take place in this segment, ICCT and IEA are quite positive on the electrification of freight vehicles. Both models expect high electric truck uptake by mid-century and not only in the light-duty segment, but also for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. While exact values are not available for IEA, for ICCT under its High Ambition scenario, around 90% of light-duty trucks and over 60% of medium- and heavy-duty trucks are expected to be electric by 2050.

Models are continuously updated to reflect the latest policy efforts and technological advancements. We are aware that many of the teams have already revised and raised ambitions with respect to the expected level of fleet electrification and many are in the process of doing so. While there might be some skepticism pertaining electrification of the freight segment, there is growing acknowledgment that it will be indispensable for India’s low-carbon future. Much has changed in recent years and we have seen positive developments on freight electrification. The California Air Resources Board (CARB)’s decision to adopt the Advanced Clean Trucks Regulation has been a landmark in this regard. Approved in June 2020, the regulation mandates that every new truck sold in California be zero-emission by 2045, with manufacturers required to begin the transition in 2024. Such signals suggest it’s time to challenge conventional assumptions and be more ambitious with electrification-related targets, including in the freight sector.

Of course, electrification would yield the greatest emission reduction benefits if powered through a low-carbon grid. Here we see some diversity in the models when it comes to timing. Some of the modeling teams suggest a larger initial emphasis on modal shift and delaying electrification of the road transport sector till India’s grid is cleaner. However, well-to-wheel CO2 emissions of electric cars are lower than their ICE counterparts even if a substantial portion of India’s electricity is generated from coal. Moreover, India is deploying renewables at a healthy rate. The renewable energy Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets are likely to be surpassed, and nearly half of the country’s electricity demand is likely to be met using renewables by 2030.

Figure 2 shows deployment of renewables in power generation in both IEA and ICCT’s optimistic energy scenarios, and renewables could be generating 80%–90% of India’s electricity by 2040. One of our ongoing analyses indicates that in such a low-carbon grid scenario, life-cycle GHG emissions from a battery-electric car could be around 80% lower in comparison to a gasoline car.

Figure 2. Electricity generation estimated under IEA and ICCT’s High Ambition scenarios.

Moreover, a study that we recently published analyzed the emissions impacts of large-scale on-road vehicle electrification for alternate grid decarbonization scenarios. We found that under a Reference scenario with aggressive electrification wherein 98% of new sales across vehicle types are electric by mid-century, and assuming implementation of only already adopted grid decarbonization strategies and no further improvement, there will be only a 6% increase in power sector air pollution in 2040. Note that this is under the pessimistic assumption that all the electricity for electric vehicles (EVs) comes from coal and gas power plants. The study also showed that the added emissions from the power sector are compensated by more substantial tailpipe emission reductions from the transport sector. In 2040, the CO2 emissions from the transport sector (vehicle tailpipe and EV grid emissions) under the Reference scenario are expected to be 33% lower than in a Baseline scenario where EVs remain only about 1% of new sales until 2040. This is shown in Figure 3. Also, under the Reference scenario we would only need 0.9% of additional electricity generation in 2030 and a 1% increase in generation in 2040 to meet the additional demand from EVs.

Figure 3. CO2 emissions from Baseline and Reference scenarios in Sen et al. (2021).

Postponing electrification also means locking in emissions from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles for several decades. On the other hand, as the grid decarbonizes, EVs, both new and old, will operate with fewer upstream GHG emissions. ICE vehicles cannot become any cleaner as they age and will continue to emit as long as they are on the road.

It’s also important to consider that EV technology is expected to become cheaper over time, and supporting electrification now would help create production volumes that could expedite cost reductions. Delaying plans for vehicle electrification would mean continuing to invest in an ICE fleet, and at this point, that seems incompatible with decarbonization by mid-century.

Our next blog will discuss some areas where we think the High Ambition scenarios, as defined by different modeling teams, could be improved. Ideally, the High Ambition scenarios should be able to predict technological and policy advancements and thereby inform the low-carbon pathway. Such exercises must set the bar high in terms of policy actions, as we argue that aiming high is the first step to achieving a low-carbon future.

This is part of NDC Transport Initiative for Asia (NDC-TIA). NDC-TIA is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) supports the initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag. For more visit: