Decarbonising the Indian transport sector: pathways and policies


The CAT explored a new approach to understanding opportunities for sectoral decarbonisation, using the example of the transport sector in India.

To hold global average temperature increase to 1.5°C, global CO2 emissions need to reach net-zero by 2050, with rapid decarbonisation in all sectors.

Global transport emissions have continued to steadily increase, with transport emissions accounting for 24 percent of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion.

In this study we look specifically at how India can decarbonise its transport sector, its fastest-growing source of carbon emissions. Its transport sector is responsible for 13.5 per cent of the country’s energy-related CO2 emissions, with road transport accounting for 90 percent of the sector’s final energy consumption.

This analysis explores Paris Agreement-aligned emissions reduction scenarios to zero emissions by 2050 for the Indian transport sector. It acknowledges that there is no single best solution to decarbonising the transport sector. Instead, it explores two stylised pathways representing two paradigm shifts that could lead to a decarbonisation of the sector, neither of them exclusive. One scenario focuses on scaling up of rail transport while the other primarily builds around electrification of road transport.

The report examines how policy driven interventions such as innovative urban planning, the electrification and improved efficiency of transport systems, a modal shift towards public transport and alternative fuels can all play a role in drastically reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Each policy area is represented as a wedge in the graphs below, showing its mitigation potential as compared to a Current Policies scenario. The order does not represent a prioritisation of action, but simply follows the underlying model logic.

The scenarios explored can only be reached with ambitious policy packages, and domestic or international financing. This report does not explore the issue of whether - or how much - international financial support would be required to support India’s transition to these highest plausible ambition scenarios in its transport sector. Rather, we identify policy areas and then review existing transport policies from a range of countries that achieve - or at least initiate - the necessary sectoral transformation in the various segments of the transport sector.

Rail focused scenario

This scenario explores a paradigm shift towards safe and reliant public transport, and shifting freight towards rail.

Road focused scenario

This scenario explores a future reliant on road transport that is driven by a growth in personal vehicles and trucks.

Key messages

This is the time for India to show leadership, by transforming its transport sector, and at the same time achieving sustainable development benefits such as reducing air pollution, climate change impacts, fossil fuel import dependency, contributing to economic development and the creation of jobs. These benefits would also be supportive of many social and economic challenges faced by India – acknowledging that it will not be possible to achieve these ambitious plans without international support.

A crucial aspect for India will be to effectively implement ambitious policies and schemes at all levels of government. One promising way to do so is to draw on lessons from existing transport policies from around the world and to interpret them in the local context. Drawing from these existing policies, we find that:

Electrification is key

  • Railroad electrification and uptake of electric vehicles, including 2 and 3-wheelers, will be needed in any pathway to a decarbonised transport sector.
  • Policies in China and California in particular could serve as role models here. Both regions have proven that the right policy mix is essential in supporting a rapid uptake of EVs while simultaneously spurring the development of a nascent industry that can bring with it important industrial growth. 
  • Heavy Duty Vehicles are more challenging, but emerging strategies around electrification and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are promising and can be supported by the right mix of financial and behavioural incentives, and investment in infrastructure. The US West Coast Clean Transport Corridor Initiative provides an early indication of what could be possible, while China’s success in rolling out electric city buses is instructive.

Public transport and railways relieve pressure on roads - a modal shift is needed

  • Demand-side measures can play an important role in relieving the pressure on how much electrified transport is needed. A modal shift away from personal transport modes enable emissions reductions by avoiding the heavy reliance on new technologies that are not proven yet to work at commercial scale
  • As recently seen in times of Covid-19, support for safe and user-friendly walking and cycling infrastructure can be rapidly rolled out and has a role to play. India should avoid making the same mistakes as more developed countries and build on its heritage of cycling and walking based transport. Providing safe and secure walking and cycling infrastructure also goes a long way to providing more equitable transport and, together with urban planning, reducing the significant congestion in urban areas.
  • Electrified railway network extensions, especially along major routes such as the Golden Quadrilateral, could be prioritised, for example by building high-speed lines. With the right planning, the share of rail transport in freight could be increased to 40 per cent in 2050.

Urban planning promotes sustainable transport

  • Sustainable urban planning and Transit Oriented Development (TOD), through regional and urban development policies, integrated transport and spatial planning, logistics optimisation and travel demand management can reduce the need for (motorised) passenger and freight transport and incentivise more environmentally friendly transport modes.
  • Urban planning has high co-benefits such as reduced congestion and travel time, lowered traffic-related injuries and deaths, noise and air pollution reduction, and improved mobility and accessibility.

Many elements of the policy framework needed to increase the ambition of the transport sector are already in place in India. Strengthening these through applying lessons from international good practice examples to the national context while not losing sight of the national circumstances can provide a significant contribution towards decarbonising the transport sector.

Download the full report for an in-depth analysis of how India can transform its transport sector in line with the Paris Agreement and serve as a role model to other countries.

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