Road Freight Is The Missing Piece In The Sustainable Transport Puzzle

Road freight sector consumes 70.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent annually leading to CO2 emissions of over 200 million tonnes.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>(Source: Unsplash)</p></div>
(Source: Unsplash)

Delhi’s back to being engulfed in smog and pollution, after collectively breathing a sigh of relief that while air quality did deteriorate during Diwali, it wasn’t as bad as it is notoriously known to be.

The sudden drop in air quality has prompted the government to impose restrictions which have now become annual fixtures on the Delhi calendar. This includes a ban on the entry of fossil fuel guzzling trucks into the National Capital Region. The impact of such a move on the economy is not lost, but the administration is left with no choice. Unfortunately, the Electric Mobility space does not have a solution to offer, just yet. 

The Indian automobile industry has made an earnest attempt to move towards clean mobility, albeit with a different approach to that adopted by the developed world. The transition has been focused on smaller vehicles, mainly two- and three-wheelers, given the price sensitive nature of our market. It’s only recently that the four-wheeler industry has realised that the future lies in clean fuel, if not electric. Buses, too, are making the transition towards zero emission. The missing piece in the puzzle remains long-haul freight. 

Seventy percent of India’s freight is transported by road and only 17.5% through rail, according to a NITI Aayog study. Road freight sector consumes about 70.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent annually leading to carbon dioxide emissions of over 200 million tonnes.

That’s more than 50% of the total fuel consumption by the transport sector and 54% of the total carbon dioxide emissions attributed to road transport, shows data compiled by C-STEP. Source apportionment studies in major Indian cities like Delhi and Kolkata have repeatedly identified goods vehicles as the largest contributor of PM2.5. 

The challenge lies in the lack of viable electric vehicles in the market for long-haul and heavy-duty trucks. The heavy trucking industry, in fact, has just started making the transition to Compressed Natural Gas, a fuel adopted by autorickshaws, cars and buses a decade ago. While CNG is definitely a cleaner alternative to diesel, it definitely isn't a permanent fix, given our need to move towards clean mobility solutions on a war footing. 

The Government of India has been making efforts to reduce the share of road-based freight in India in recent times. There has been a conscious effort to diversify modes of long distance freight delivery. Pace of implementation of the Dedicated Freight Corridors in East and West India have been accelerated significantly. Similarly, the scope of using waterways to deliver freight has been expanded. Under the Maritime India Vision 2030, a target of 120 million metric tonnes has been set for the year 2024-25.

Freight movement on the Ganga has increased more than 88% since 2016-17, of course on a relatively small base. Freight movement on the Brahmaputra and Barak waterways have also picked up pace in recent times. However, these solutions, while significant, are insufficient in substituting road-based freight delivery, necessitating a thrust on clean mobility solutions for road freight transport. 

Low intermodal connectivity prevents the increased utilisation of railways and waterways, thanks to insufficient supporting infrastructure. While the PM Gati Shakti National Master Plan and National Logistics Policy are meant to bring to this shift, multi-modal transport is still some distance away in becoming mainstream on a large scale. 

The solution lies in taking incremental steps, starting with viable alternate clean fuels in the interim, granting the necessary time for truck manufacturers to innovate and introduce scalable electric mobility solutions. 

One such alternate solution could be bio-CNG. The clean fuel produced using urban organic waste and crop residue can fuel the existing fleet of CNG vehicles, without the need for any modifications. Its adoption may, in fact, prove to be the solution to stubble burning across the country as farmers find a way to monetise farm waste. India has already had some success in implementing such plants in cities, creating a revenue source for the civic authorities, while dealing with urban waste which would otherwise have ended up in landfills. 

Recent gyrations in crude prices coupled with the Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation programme, has brought bio-CNG prices on a par, if not lower than regular CNG. Over 3,000 letters of intent have been released to date under the scheme on a pan-India basis; however, given India’s agricultural waste, especially stubble, there is significant scope to productively utilise stubble.

This has been amply demonstrated by the Lehragaga bio-CNG plant recently commissioned in Sangrur, Punjab. As Asia’s largest such plant, it can potentially reduce stubble burning of 40,000–45,000 acres of fields and produce a maximum of 33 tonnes per day of compressed biogas which can be filtered to produce bio-CNG. Such an initiative demonstrates that multiple objectives can be solved simultaneously as stubble that would have been burnt otherwise now finds value. 

Truck optimisation also poses a challenge in a country like India. Small-scale warehousing, rudimentary freight handling systems and fractured ownership (99% of truck owners in India own less than five trucks) have led to low utilisation and long dead miles (empty travel) and overloading, all of which trigger higher emission.

The challenge can be addressed by encouraging the aggregation of demand, creating an opportunity for the freight and trucking industry to seek bookings from multiple vendors on a common platform. This will lead to better utilisation and effective use of the miles travelled. 

The fragmented nature of ownership has traditionally also led to financing challenges for the truck owners, restricting their ability to transition to vehicles that run on cleaner fuel, which are more expensive than the equivalent diesel-powered alternatives. Financing and demand incentives are necessary tools that can nudge truck operators to modernise and choose cleaner fuel-powered vehicles over the fossil fuel guzzlers we see on the road today. 

Awareness—not just among operators, but also drivers—is imperative, given the interdependence of man and machine. Technological touch points like overheating sensors, fuel consumption indicators, speed optimisation sensors and the need to refrain from overloading, will collectively contribute substantially to help combat pollution by ensuring that the vehicle is being driven and maintained at its optimum level. This can’t be achieved if the drivers are prompted to drive in suboptimal conditions, including fatigue. 

Lastly, logistics is hampered by poor infrastructure and connectivity in India. Logistics cost is currently estimated at 14% of India’s GDP. This is higher than the 10% observed in most developed countries. A major factor behind the comparatively higher cost is road quality and inadequate coverage, which impacts operational efficiency. While the government, in recent years, has been augmenting road penetration in the country, there is a need to strengthen it further. 

Freight transport will continue to play a big role in the future, be it in driving economic growth or ensuring basic goods and services reach all stakeholders. Making it sustainable is a necessity that needs to be pursued today, and not left to technological innovation in the future.

Rohit Pathania is Lead, Energy & Mobility at the OMI Foundation.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.