EV no answer to air pollution: Chicago professor Michael Greenstone

Michael Greenstone, University of Chicago professor
The government’s aggressive impetus to electric vehicles to reduce air pollution may be misplaced in terms of both emissions and cost, cautions Faculty Director, Tata Center for Development at UChicago, Michael Greenstone, an energy and climate change expert helping Gujarat and Maharashtra in cutting particulate emissions from industries. The professor says if the charging grid for EVs remained largely coal based, net impact on emissions could be in fact “worse.”

“The challenge with EV is, what you plug them into. If the grid remains largely coal based, the net impact could be worse.  In some parts of the United States, it is worse to drive an EV compared to an internal combustive vehicle as the grid is largely based on coal, which is CO2,” said Greenstone. He also said, “if the goal was to reduce particulate air pollution, I suspect there are more direct and more efficient ways to do that.”

Automobile sales in India witnessed its worst-ever drop in August since the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) started recording wholesale vehicle sales data in 1997-98. Passenger vehicle sales dipped 31.6 per cent, down 10 months in a row. This is being largely credited to muted demand on account government’s push to EV and the scare of phasing out of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030.. However, the government recently relented on the matter due to the worsening economic slowdown and large scale job losses in the auto sector.

Expressing disbelief over government’s initial target, Greenstone pointed out that even a country like Norway, where market share of EVs stand at 36% could go 100% not before 2045 or 2050. Besides, getting EVs is an expensive proposition, requiring governments to give massive subsidies.

“California’s EV market is just a couple of percentage points, while entire US is 1-2 percentage points. It has been much hard to get much EV penetration without very massive subsidies in any part of the world, be it  China, US or Norway. They required large subsidies,” said Greenstone.

Greenstone was in Delhi to take part in an event organised by International Growth Centre (IGC). 

Pronab Sen, programme Director for the IGC India Programme and former chief statistician, added that the pollution arising out of used batteries also needed to be accounted for. Greenstone pointed out that even Norway has stepped back from EV as it was too expensive and also that there is was a big debate about what was going to happen to the used batteries. “Nobody is sure of how to dispose the used batteries or how you could reuse them,” he added.

The goods and services tax council had cut GST rate on EVs to 5% from 18% in its last meeting. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also announced a slew of tax incentives for purchase of EVs and manufacturing of batteries. It is now facing a demand from the auto sector for a GST rate cut, which stands at 28%, besides cess.

Greenstone pointed out that there were ways to cut emissions through cost effective means, alternative to EVs. Greenstone is driving a ‘cap and trade’ emission permits project for industries based out of Surat. It allows industries to buy and sell emission permits in order to comply with the cap by real time tracking of high quality data. Niti Aayog’s roadmap had said that all vehicles sold after 2030 would be electric. Also, all two-and three-wheelers should go electric from 2023 and all commercial vehicles from 2026, as per the roadmap. In fact, Road, Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari had in 2017 announced move India to 100% electric cars by 2030. "I am going to do this, whether you like it or not. And I am not going to ask you. I will bulldoze it," he had said at an industry conference. But given the backlash and economic slowdown, Gadkari last week clarified to the auto sector that the government did not intend to ban vehicles running on petrol and diesel.

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