Why will electric vehicles benefit India irrespective of new power sector policies?

Electrification Zero-emission vehicles
Clean air

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, the saying goes, and when it comes to electric vehicles (EVs), it’s becoming clearer and clearer that delaying the transition is a poor policy choice. This holds true even for countries like India where the electricity grid is still mostly powered by coal.

Let’s take a few minutes to review the research behind this.

Today we published a briefing about the air quality and health impacts of ambitious EV adoption in India, and it follows from our paper that estimated the on-road and power sector emissions impacts of the same ambitious vehicle electrification. The project gets at the heart of something you’ve probably heard before: Electrification of vehicle fleets increases power generation requirements. Given that fossil fuels contribute to more than three-quarters of total generation in India, the additional electricity requirements will increase power sector emissions and could ultimately outweigh the benefits of reduced vehicle tailpipe emissions. This can lead to a worsening of overall air quality, at least in the short term, and argues for pursuing vehicle electrification only once there are additional, substantial power sector decarbonization and emission control policies in place.

Would the additional power sector emissions exceed tailpipe emission reductions in the absence of new policies? We find mostly not. First, the business-as-usual scenario for vehicle sales in India, in which EVs remain a small percentage of the fleet, is likely to lead to a considerable increase in on-road emissions. Our analysis of emissions from ambitious vehicle electrification suggests that even without any additional power sector measures, aggregate vehicle and power sector emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are reduced in both 2030 and 2040; in 2040, CO2 is reduced by about 25% and NOx is reduced by about 21%, both compared to the baseline for that year (see Figure 9 from the paper). For fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) there are only marginal increases in aggregate emissions in 2030 and 2040 compared to the baseline in those years. Note that all of this is under the conservative assumption that all the new generation demand is met by fossil fuel power plants. In reality, it’s likely that at least some renewable resources will be used to power EVs, especially over time.

Time is an important factor here. The life-cycle assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from passenger cars that we published this summer demonstrates that a key advantage of EVs is considerably lower life-cycle emissions compared to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Already an EV registered in India in 2021 will have 34% lower carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions over its operational life compared to ICEs registered that same year (see Figure 3 in this briefing, which is part of our work with the Zero Emission Vehicles Transition Council). These benefits will be even greater—60%—for cars registered in 2030 if India decarbonizes its grid in alignment with strategies needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

EVs can get cleaner over their lifetimes as the energy that powers them gets cleaner. India is already deploying renewables at a healthy rate, and a delay in switching to EVs would result in, among other things, a failure to capture the full gains possible from the cleaner grid as it materializes. And passenger cars are often on the road for 15 years in India.

Now let’s turn to our newest work on the air quality impacts. We used the national and gridded emissions output data from our vehicle and power scenarios to generate national- and state-level air quality values using the WRF-Chem model, particularly focusing on PM2.5 concentration. We found that in 2030 and 2040, PM2.5 concentration decreases for all scenarios, indicating improved air quality nationally. Additionally, as shown in the figure below, at the state level we see that barring a slight worsening in air quality in Ladakh for which results are within model error tolerance, air quality either improves or is steady in all states for all scenarios in 2030 and 2040 compared to baseline of the same year.

Figure. State-level variation in population weighted PM2.5 concentrations (μg/m3) by scenario. Absolute values for Baseline (the only scenario in which EV sales remain low) and ratios calculate the values of other scenarios relative to Baseline in the same year. REF = No additional power sector measures. IEC = Improved power plant emission controls. CP = Ambitious phase-out of coal power plants. COM = Combined IEC and CP.

These findings suggest that the idea that vehicle electrification without cleaning up the grid would backfire in terms of air quality is largely untrue. Without significant additional power sector emission control and decarbonization measures, vehicle electrification could lead to as many as 16,700 avoided premature deaths in 2040, which corresponds to $19.1 billion (2020 U.S. dollars) in avoided health costs. The societal gains in terms of reducing air quality related health impacts can be maximized if India combines power sector emission control and decarbonization policies with large-scale vehicle electrification strategies. We find that these could lead to as many as 70,400 avoided premature deaths in 2040, which corresponds to $80.7 billion (2020 U.S. dollars) in avoided health costs, compared to the baseline that year.