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The Impact of Environmental Laws on the Development of Electric Vehicle Technologies in India

This article investigates the dynamic landscape of electric vehicle (EV) adoption in India, focusing on the associated challenges and prospects against the backdrop of a steadily increasing number of registered vehicles and the resultant surge in greenhouse gas emissions, while also delving into the multifaceted implications of pro-EV policies.

The research is structured around four core inquiries, addressing the influence of EV initiatives on air quality, co-benefits in terms of emissions reduction and air pollution, the alignment of India's climate objectives with EV policies, and the potential risks linked to battery demand and widespread EV integration. Government perceptions of EVs as transformative agents are explored, emphasizing their environmental, economic, and energy-related advantages.

As the nation aims to enhance its mobility standards, a substantial surge in the scale of the number of registered vehicles in India is anticipated in the forthcoming years. With a notable rise in the overall number of registered vehicles on the roads, there is an expected increase in greenhouse gas emissions, depletion of fossil fuels, and harm to the environment and its inhabitants. These consequences prompt a shift towards environmentally friendly and carbon-neutral alternatives in future mobility.

Electric vehicles (EVs) have garnered significant attention as sustainable substitutes for traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in recent years. Projections indicate a significant growth in the national fleet of EVs due to their characteristics such as reduced emissions, noise levels, and potential improvements in vehicle crash structures. Moreover, EVs hold substantial potential and promise to transform the 2-wheeler and sectors pertaining to public transport, which are crucial components of India's automotive industry.

Despite the push towards adopting electric vehicles (EVs) in India, there are currently no mandatory targets, raising concerns about the potential environmental and community impacts in proximity to India's power generation centres. The transition to EVs implies that newly registered vehicles in India would rely on electricity rather than fossil fuels, necessitating a corresponding increase in the production of batteries. However, environmentalists caution that if the electricity powering these EVs is derived from fossil fuel-based plants rather than renewable sources, it undermines the fundamental purpose of the shift.

Nevertheless, they acknowledge that this transition would contribute to mitigating the high levels of vehicular pollution across the country. The re-emergence of electric vehicles in the market is due to reasons such as improved battery technology and governments' policies to maintain vehicle efficiency and air quality standards. Electric Vehicles are an important technology that would help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, local air pollution and vehicular noise pollution. Being cognizant of these benefits, countries around the world are setting EV adoption targets.

The imperative of safeguarding the environment, promoting conservation, and ensuring sustainable resource use is ingrained in India's constitutional framework and international commitments, including its "Nationally Determined Contribution Targets." The Constitution mandates that every citizen has a duty to enhance and protect the environment, demonstrating compassion for all living beings. Additionally, the Constitution asserts that the state is obligated to strive for the "improvement and protection of the environment" and the preservation of the country's forests and wildlife.

Government Considers Electric Vehicles As The Game Changer: Benefits

  1. Environmental Benefits: As electric vehicles (EVs) do not release emissions through tailpipe; they do not in any manner lead to air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. Even when fossil fuels are utilized for generating the energy to power EVs, their pollution output is lower than that of typical gas-powered vehicles.
  2. Cost Efficiency: Electric vehicles offer reduced operating costs compared to regular cars. Generally, electricity is more cost-effective than petrol or diesel, and the simplified design of electric vehicles, with fewer moving parts, leads to lower maintenance requirements. The robust durability of electric motors, in comparison to internal combustion engines, often results in longer lifespans.
  3. Energy Liberation: Such electric vehicles can be powered by sources of renewable energy such as wind or solar power, ultimately decreasing their dependence on fossil fuels and enhancing the overall sustainability of energy consumption.
  4. Efficiency Advantages: Electric vehicles demonstrate higher efficiency compared to traditional cars. While EVs are acknowledged for zero emissions and pollution reduction, a comprehensive evaluation of their environmental impact considers well-to-wheel (WTW) emissions. This encompasses emissions from vehicle production, operation, energy production, distribution, and the end-of-life phase. The efficiency of the power plant also plays a crucial role in well-to-wheel effectiveness. In contrast to diesel cars (26% to 38%) and petrol vehicles (12% to 28%), electric vehicles powered by natural gas power plants exhibit WTW efficiency ranging from 14% to 30%, while those driven by renewable energy show an increase in the overall efficiency of up to 70%.
  5. Quiet and Smooth Operation: Electric vehicles operate with significantly less vibration and noise, providing a quieter and smoother driving experience compared to conventional cars. This can contribute to a more enjoyable and relaxing driving environment.

  1. Convenience
    EVs can be charged at home or public charging stations, eliminating the need for traditional petrol stations. Additionally, many EVs offer features that allow drivers to remotely adjust the cabin temperature, enhancing comfort in extreme weather conditions.
  2. Performance
    Electric motors enable instant torque, facilitating quick acceleration in EVs. Their potential lower centre of gravity also enhances manoeuvrability and stability, contributing to improved overall performance.
  3. EV and Health
    In spite of ongoing advancements and enhancements, the automotive sector remains responsible for a significant portion, constituting a quarter, of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The emissions from automobiles contribute to elevated levels of air pollution, with numerous urban communities worldwide frequently failing to meet the air quality standards established by the World Health Organization (WHO). Consequently, it is crucial to showcase innovative energy-efficient vehicles on a global scale.

    Electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles present numerous benefits for cities and urban areas, ranging from extremely low (plug-in hybrid electric cars, PHEV) to zero (battery electric cars, BEV) tailpipe emissions, diminished noise levels, and the capability to facilitate new intelligent services. Hence, the European Union (EU) is meticulously and broadly examining the implementation of a prohibition on driving diesel cars in various European and German cities.

    This initiative aims to curtail local emissions, particularly nitrogen oxides, with the goal of addressing environmental and health concerns. A notable instance of such measures occurred in 2018 when the German city of Stuttgart imposed restrictions on the operation of older diesel cars due to elevated nitric oxide levels compared to previous years.

    Additionally, policymakers seek to diminish greenhouse gas emissions by promoting alternative technologies, such as battery electric vehicles, powered by sustainable energy sources to minimize their environmental impact. Over the past decade, 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the road transport sector. The increasing focus on alternative technologies such as battery electric vehicles (BEVs) offers a chance to reduce these emissions.

Growth of EVs: An eye on concerns:

  1. E-Vehicle and Greenhouse gas emissions: Impact on Environment
    The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, aims to enable the "preservation of the quality of air and control of air pollution." Power plants, automobiles, and industries are not permitted to discharge specific matter, lead, carbon monoxide, or other harmful compounds beyond a defined threshold, according to the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981. The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India stated that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental human right, which guarantees the right to clean air, safeguarded by Article 21 of the Constitution.

    In this manner, the Court broadened the ambit of Article 21 to encompass the fundamental entitlement to a wholesome environment and unpolluted air. This paved the path for the implementation of lead-free petrol in Delhi, along with the embrace of "compressed natural gas (CNG)." Additionally, the Court contributed to the formation of a consortium tasked with not only legal proceedings but also the pursuit of lasting remedies to address air quality issues in Delhi.
Starting from 2001, consecutive administrations have put in place different strategies to decrease vehicle emissions, including the adoption of CNG and cleaner fuels, the enforcement of an Odd-Even number plate scheme, and the installation of emission monitoring systems. Currently, efforts are underway to completely transition to electric cars (EVs) by 2030. Various Indian and global automakers are providing electric vehicles, and the essential infrastructure for recharging these cars is also under development.

Skerlos and Winebrake (2010), in their study, discuss the social benefits of using EVs which include a reduction in GHGs emissions and other air pollutants. EVs have shown substantially lower emissions than traditional ICE vehicles while considering the emissions from power plants used in charging such vehicles. The magnitude of this difference depends strongly on the source of generation of power for these EVs: natural gas, coal or renewable fuels.

The adoption of electric vehicles plays a pivotal role in accelerating the shift to renewable energy. Electric vehicles release only a third of the greenhouse gases produced by conventional gas vehicles, exhibiting exceptional energy efficiency even when supplied with power from the grid. While the manufacturing of electric vehicles introduces more pollution than combustion-engine vehicles due to the battery-making process, the overall environmental impact over the lifespan of electric vehicles is significantly lower, aligning with the objectives of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981.

  1. Generation & Disposal of Hazardous Waste
    Defined as waste posing threats to human health or the environment, hazardous waste from electric vehicle (EV) batteries raises concerns. Initially powered by lead-acid batteries, modern electric vehicles rely on lithium-ion batteries with additional components like cobalt, graphite, and nickel. The inadequate preparedness in India for the substantial amount of EV battery waste anticipated in the next decade poses a challenge.

    Existing regulations, such as the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, lack comprehensive guidelines for the safe disposal of EV batteries, creating a potential hazard for both domestic and imported battery waste. This situation could turn India into a dumping ground for lithium waste, containing toxins harmful to the environment and human health.

    Moreover, there is a lack of adequate regulations to prevent the improper disposal of used lithium batteries. While existing legislations, namely the "E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011," "E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2016," and "E-waste (Management) Amendment Rules, 2018," have undergone substantial evolution concerning the range of materials, they lack a notable lack of comprehensive guidelines specifically addressing the safe disposal of electric vehicle batteries, leading to a significant gap in frameworks intended for the end-of-life treatment or recycling of materials, with no specific mention of Li-ion batteries.
This situation presents a potential danger, as it could result in India becoming a repository for lithium waste, encompassing not only domestic electric vehicle waste but also imported used batteries. These batteries contain toxins that can pose environmental and human health risks if not properly recycled or treated. Additionally, the spontaneous reaction of lithium with moisture can lead to significant landfill explosions.

Despite the federal government categorizing Li-ion batteries as non-hazardous waste and indicating their safe disposal in regular municipal waste streams, numerous studies have shown that they can contaminate water sources. Much of the current recycling processes are "informal," taking place in less developed, rural regions without adequate control or safeguards. This informal recycling raises the likelihood of lithium infiltrating water supplies during these activities. In highly developed areas, similar problems arise when individuals improperly dispose of consumer devices, often powered by Li-ion batteries. Importantly, lithium is not the sole substance posing a threat to soil and groundwater pollution; metals like nickel, cobalt, and manganese found in EV batteries are considerably significantly hazardous to both human life and the environment than lithium.
  1. E-vehicle batteries: Detrimental to the environment
    While the promotion of electric vehicles is encouraged, concerns about their environmental impact persist. Decommissioning electric vehicles leads to significant pollution from the batteries, predominantly lithium-ion cells dependent on raw materials like cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements. Cobalt mining and smelting processes associated with battery production contribute to environmental pollution and human rights issues.

    Cobalt has proven to be a significant concern, with mining activities generating Perilous tailings and slags that possess the potential to infiltrate the environment. Research indicates heightened concentrations of cobalt and other metals in neighbouring communities, particularly affecting children. The process of extracting metals from ores involves smelting, releasing sulfur oxide and various detrimental airborne pollutants.

    The storage of energy in large batteries for electric vehicles comes at considerable environmental costs. These batteries comprise rare earth elements (REEs) such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, or graphite, which necessitate harmful mining procedures since they are only found beneath the Earth's surface. The production of batteries for electric vehicles consumes approximately 50 per cent more water than standard internal combustion engines. Additionally, rare earth deposits, predominantly located in China, often contain radioactive elements, leading to the production of radioactive water and dust.

    Vibhhas Verma, the founder of Aqueouss, a leading manufacturer and exporter of electric vehicle batteries, highlighted the global significance of electric vehicles, describing them as one of the most crucial and widely discussed topics today.

    The Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 stands as an environmental legislation aimed at safeguarding and enhancing the environment. However, the hazards associated with the adoption of electric vehicles may conflict with certain provisions of the Act. Despite the advanced technology in this field, there is still room for improvement. Hence, these considerations should be taken into account when implementing measures to reduce air pollution, and decisions should be made following a thorough investigation of their long-term implications.
  2. Lack of Charging Infrastructure
    Technological advancements in electric vehicle (EV) technologies are still in progress, and as a result, their future trajectory remains uncertain. One crucial factor influencing the acceptance of EVs is the performance of batteries, which have not yet reached their pinnacle. Despite recent progress in constructing charging infrastructure, it still lags behind the accessibility and practicality of conventional petrol stations. The disparity presents difficulties for electric vehicle (EV) drivers in locating charging stations, especially during extended journeys or in isolated areas.

    The pace of battery recharge is another aspect of technology surrounded by uncertainty. Although there has been prolonged anticipation that rapid and reliable charging would facilitate the widespread adoption of electric vehicles over conventionally fueled vehicles, the worldwide deployment of fast charging might exert pressure on the electric grid, resulting in stability concerns within power systems.

    In addition, conflicting technical standards for charging interfaces add to the confusion, underscoring the necessity for a pre-established consensus on recharging norms to promote the growth of the EV market. Diverse standards would necessitate substantial infrastructure expenditure, and the complexity of many charging standards adds challenges for EV suppliers and automakers in producing their goods.

Way Forward

The Tripura High Court in the case of "Smt. Sudipa Nath v. The Union of India & others" has instructed the State of Tripura to promptly undertake actions in the public interest, aligning with the FAME India Phase II program introduced by the Union of India. Additionally, the court has mandated the formulation of a comprehensive electric vehicle policy by the state of Tripura, emphasizing the objective of environmental preservation through the advancement of non-carbon fuel-based vehicles. The High Court underscored the uncontested reality that the Union of India supports the encouragement of alternative fuels instead of carbon-based transportation systems, offering various incentives for electric cars. These incentives include subsidies provided through electric vehicle programs implemented by various states.

The development of electric vehicles is guided by the vision of making them more environmentally sustainable, eco-friendly, and enduring. Presently, electric vehicles exhibit superior environmental credentials compared to traditional fossil fuel vehicles over their entire lifecycle, particularly when powered by clean electricity.

However, the adoption of electric vehicles necessitates a thorough evaluation of their environmental impact and alignment with existing environmental laws. It is crucial to ensure that citizens' entitlement to a healthy environment remains uncompromised under all circumstances.

Ultimately, the integration of electric vehicles with renewable energy sources becomes essential for the transportation sector, contributing to a further reduction in carbon emissions and overall environmental benefits. Government policies and incentives play a pivotal role in supporting this transition through sustained assistance, encompassing financial incentives, tax credits, and investments in charging infrastructure, thus expediting the shift towards electric mobility.

End Notes:
  • Brady, J., & O'Mahony, M. (2011). Introduction of electric vehicles to Ireland: socioeconomic analysis.
  • Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2242(1), 64�71.
  • Coffman, M., Bernstein, P., Wee, S., & Goodman, A. (2016). Electric vehicles revisited: A review of the factors that affect adoption. Transport Reviews, 37(1), 29�55.
  • Article 51A, Fundamental Duties, Constitution of India.
  • Article 48A, Directive Principles of State Policy, Constitution of India.
  • Li, Z.; Khajepour, A.; Song, J. A comprehensive review of the key technologies for pure electric vehicles.
  • Energy 2019, 182, 824�839.
  • MC Mehta v. UOI, AIR 1987 SC 1086
  • Skerlos, S. J., & Winebrake, J. J. (2010). Targeting plug-in hybrid electric vehicle policies to increase social benefits. Energy Policy, 38(2), 705�708.
  • WP(C)(PIL) No.30/2021

Written By: Naman Grover, 3rd Year Student BA.LL.B. Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi

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