Systems thinking inevitable for a ‘just’ e-mobility transition in India

Times of India, June 25, 2021

By Sarthak Shukla and Snehil Singh

As we witness the unfolding of a power-packed year of climate action, all eyes are hooked towards COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November. Seen as the last-ditch to save the world and in a welcome move since the Paris agreement, the global climate agenda has become even more nuanced and action-oriented with its focus to shift to net zero.

At the G20 summit last year, PM Modi declared India as exceeding its nationally determined targets under the Paris Agreement of keeping the temperature rise to below 2-degrees and the installed capacity of renewable energy going up by 226 percent in the past five years. Despite the progress made, there are many debates being kindled on India’s climate policy establishment, specifically on the zero-emission targets.

One of such debates revolves around the approach of targeting net-zero in carbon-intensive sectors including power and transportation. In both these economically vital sectors, the existing scheme of things is predominately powered through fossil fuel. Thus, shifting away from coal, petrol or diesel should be carefully planned to smoothen any potential disruptions in the process of transition.

Particularly in the transport sector, the drive to embrace EVs instead of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles by 2030, often finds itself to be the talking point. India has been trailblazing on this path to electrification by undertaking several initiatives to accelerate adoption of EVs, a recent one being the FAME II amendment to boost electric 2W demand.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, while the intersection of the discourse on inclusivity, sustainability and resilience has been dominating the economic recovery narrative, there is a need to push for such attributes to the e-mobility transition as well. Towards this, the adoption of the concepts of just transition and systems thinking are inevitable.

‘Just transition’ ensures an outcome-based, resilient and inclusive macro-level framework. Deriving its significance from the word ‘justice’, this concept aims to ensure that socio-economic impacts of any transition are not unevenly distributed or borne by the society at large, especially the marginalised sections. While the concept has found great traction in the climate agenda, particularly energy transition, it can be applied to e-mobility too.

Primarily, this involves addressing the impact on the livelihoods of people dependent on the auto sector, while transitioning to a climate-friendly future. India’s EV market is estimated to grow to nearly US$206 billion by 2030 and is expected to create 10 million jobs in the near future. In one of the main findings of a CUTS study, Jaipur alone is expected to create around 45,000 new jobs in the next 10 years. However, the immediate fear of survival – as EV-related jobs require a specially-trained workforce – haunts the prospects of almost one-third of the people engaged in this sector.

Keeping people at the centre of the policy process is key here. This implies addressing the livelihood concerns of the workforce engaged in the manufacturing, operations, repair services and end-of-life management processes of conventional ICE vehicles with focus on the scope of skill development, retaining transferable skills, easing the quality of working and subsequently the quality of life of the workforce.

The political acceptability of a just transition has been accomplished beyond borders. Its importance is reiterated through the flagship investment plan of the Biden Administration being propounded as the ‘American Jobs Plan’, and also that almost every recent investment or policy decision in India has been accompanied by the announcement of its job creation capacity.

However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure just transition does not remain an abstract concept but is indeed translated into an actionable e-mobility strategy. In this context, the EU’s Green New Deal is an illustration that provides a strategic roadmap for translating visions into actions.

On the other hand, systems thinking approach implies viewing real-world problems as a manifestation of the way different actors in an ecosystem interact and operate. For instance, the problems of social inequality or ecological sustainability in various economic activities cannot be comprehensively addressed without exploring systems like atmospheric sciences, technology, social sciences, polity, behavioral economics etc. Similarly, the problem of low levels of EV adoption due to lack of awareness, inadequate capacity of vehicle or component manufacturing, among others, requires a broader systems analysis as the point of inquiry, to begin with.

A systems thinking approach compels policymakers to place individuals or end consumers at the core of decision making. Thus, in the e-mobility sector, systems thinking approach will help determine a policy’s responsiveness to deal with micro-level nuances in implementation. For instance, how can India’s battery waste management rules, scrapping policy or e-mobility policies be made truly consumer-centric so as to drive behaviour change in an expected, timely, holistic fashion?

Furthermore, a comprehensive and exhaustive approach to policy and practice also addresses the perennial chicken-egg problem often faced by the e-mobility sector. This problem of whether vehicles should come first or the charging infrastructure needs a systems solution. This implies that focus should be on getting the system in place so that the end consumers have the visibility and confidence of using the various e-mobility options.

Thus, while India is making strides to remain holistic, with job creation as one of the focus areas, getting the policy right by imbibing the true principles of systems thinking and just transition will facilitate an inclusive and resilient EV ecosystem, i.e. by benefiting the last person in the queue.

By imbibing these principles, India can develop and serve as a global beacon for clean mobility.

Sarthak Shukla is an Assistant Policy Analyst at CUTS International, a global public policy think tank. Snehil Singh is Manager, Policy and Advocacy at the Ola Mobility Institute.

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