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India’s Switch To Electric Vehicles Can Be A Global Role Model For Climate Actions

Subsidies by the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan, will encourage public support too.

20/10/2017 12:59 PM IST | Updated 20/10/2017 1:41 PM IST
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A range of newly-launched Tata Motors Ltd. hybrid and electric buses stand on display at the company's commercial vehicle manufacturing unit in Pune, India, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Image used for representational purposes only.

Transportation minister Nitin Gadkari made an announcement recently that India will switch completely to electric vehicles by 2030. Bold indeed! The earlier initiative from 2015 called Faster Adoption and Manufacture of (Hybrid and) Electric vehicles (FLAME) seems to have failed to take off. But Mr. Gadkari said this time he will just bulldoze his way through. Considering that India imports over 80% of its crude oil at a cost of over $80 billion, and air pollution is now blamed for over 1 million premature deaths per year, this transformation would be a giant step towards energy security and air quality improvements of unprecedented levels.

While the United States saw an increase in the sale of bigger vehicles due to the drop in crude oil prices over the last few years, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government chose to keep petrol and diesel prices the same or even slightly higher during these cheap crude oil years. The additional revenues have largely gone to reducing the fuel-subsidies and to deal with the slowdown in economic growth. The brave initiative to switch completely to electric vehicles will obviously face many social and political challenges. All climate actions that require disruptive socio-technical transitions will face hurdles, some expected and some unexpected. The expected resistance will come from established industries and institutions that stand to lose, and the entrenched behavioral patterns of citizens whose pocketbooks or ways of life get hit by these transitions.

'Creative destruction' to destabilise the old structures is as critical as the innovation, and adoption of the new.

The good news for India's transition to all-electric-vehicles is that charging stations have already popped up in states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra due to their early adoption of electric vehicles for government fleets. Cab services like Ola have also announced their plans to switch to electric vehicles. Some auto-manufacturers have also taken steps towards increasing the production of electric cars and two-wheelers. The cost of batteries and battery charges have seen a significant global reduction while charging speeds as well battery quality have gone up. Companies like Tesla are already salivating at the idea of capturing the Indian electric car market share.

Several policies and incentives have been put forth for facilitating the transition such as the subsidies for hybrid and electric bikes and cars by the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan. While most of the sociotechnical transition plans focus on policies and incentives to drive adoption and innovation towards the new technologies, much less attention is paid towards strategies to dismantle the old technologies. The so-called 'creative destruction' to destabilise the old structures is as critical as the innovation and adoption of the new.

For example, manufacturing and marketing, the workforce, education/training and R&D that support petrol and diesel vehicles cannot simply be wished away by 2030. Planned phasing out of this massive infrastructure is as critical if nst more so, as simultaneously driving the innovation for manufacturing, training a new workforce or retraining much of the existing workforce, mental models to drive large-scale adoption of electric vehicles as well as the infrastructure for electricity production, charging stations, smarter grids, and better and cheaper batteries as well as their recycling.

Unplanned transitions can create long-lasting trauma, the worst case being the mine closures in the UK which have left persistent social problems due to a failure to retrain the mine workers

Unplanned transitions can create long-lasting trauma, the worst case being the mine closures in the UK which have left persistent social problems due to a failure to retrain the mine workers. Some of the current global backlash against immigration, and the swing to the Right in election outcomes are blamed on socio-technical transitions that have not included appropriate policy mixes for creative destruction of the old while transitioning to the new. The framework provided for deep decarbonisation also apply to the many socio-technical transitions India must undergo to live up to its commitments to the Paris Agreement.

The planned transition to electric vehicles may offer a golden opportunity to focus on combining the positive incentives to drive consumers, corporations, local and state governments towards them, with policies and subsidies to transition out of using petrol and diesel vehicles. Removing the subsidies that already exist for petrol/diesel vehicles is obviously the first task. But unintended consequences must be kept in mind. For example: diesel vehicles are now the main mode of transporting food and grains which means the transition to electric vehicles must ensure that food prices are not affected adversely, especially for the poor.

Large-scale social acceptance will require business support as well as efforts to raise awareness of co-benefits such as cleaner air, water and food.

The challenge of the cost, quality, comfort, and maintenance of electric vehicles can hardly be underestimated. As of now, fewer than 25,000 electric vehicles are sold annually but the drop in price expected in the coming years will bump up demand. Past transitions have relied on different but interdependent innovations. Renewable energy advances and its large-scale adoption can combine with novel battery technologies, smart grids, increased electric vehicle demand with supportive policies and subsidies, as well new business models may work as a game-changer for the transition to electric vehicles.

But the government needs to proactively facilitate the synergy of innovations and policies needed for making electric vehicles an attractive alternative, while also driving the creative destruction of the petrol/diesel vehicles as a way of life. Large-scale social acceptance will require business support as well as efforts to raise awareness of co-benefits such as cleaner air, water and food. And a broader discourse on the positive outcomes of a low-carbon economy in terms of global competitiveness and quality of life in addition to standards of living.

Climate policies can benefit from technological innovations which offer solutions and accelerate the green spiral.

Externalities such as unforeseen increases in oil prices or a bottom-up demand on improving air quality may well become important players in this sociotechnical transition. Climate policies can benefit from technological innovations which offer solutions and accelerate the green spiral which can lead to positive feedback of green industries coming together to expand the low-carbon coalition. Such bottom-up coalitions of businesses and societies can make climate action resilient to political setbacks: the continued climate actions by some states in the US under the Trump-administration being a prime example.

India thus need not rely simply on bans and regulations to enforce the transition to electric vehicles, or any of the other transitions necessary to keep abreast of its INDC targets. It can adopt a strategic mix of policies, incentives, regulations and subsidies to drive a smooth and equitable transition. Investments in science and technology education will also need to drive innovations and entrepreneurship to support such transitions, as well train a globally-aware workforce. This workforce will continue to exploit the green markets as well as it has cashed in on IT and other outsourcing. The switch to electric vehicles can thus be a golden opportunity.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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