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Unveiling Railways’ Decarbonization Potential, ET Infra

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Nav Goel

NEW DELHI: The transport sector is responsible for approximately one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for 22 percent of global CO2 emissions. Transport is the fastest-growing and energy-consuming sector; growing so fast that in 2021, it consumed one-third of the world’s total energy. Astonishingly, 96 percent of this energy came from fossil fuels.

In COP 28, the inclusion of land transport decarbonization on the COP agenda for the first time marked a significant milestone. It was highlighted during a ministerial-level assembly and a transport-energy forum, where a call to action was issued. The goal is to strive towards doubling the portion of energy-efficient and fossil-free land transport by 2030. India’s Nationally Determined Contributions encompass strategies directly impacting travel demand and modal choice management.

At present, within India’s transportation industry, roads shoulder 61 percent of the freight, contributing to 90 percent of the emissions generated by the sector. In stark contrast, Railways, despite handling 27 percent of the freight, are responsible for a mere 7 percent of the total emissions.

And Indian Railways (IR) is on track to make it even further less carbon intensive. Consider these key highlights: (i) The Indian Railways’ complete electrification is nearing completion, (ii) Implementation of Head-on-Generation (HOG) Systems coupled with regenerative braking capabilities (iii) Electric Locomotives boast approximately 85 percent efficiency compared to the 35 percent efficiency of Diesel Locomotives, (iv) The Indian Railways is making strides towards its ambitious goal of achieving net- zero emissions by 2030.

IR’s full-scale electrification initiative is set to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of rail transportation in India. Recent available data shows a remarkable shift: in 2018-19, IR consumed 27 lakh kilo litres of diesel, whereas, in 2021-22, diesel usage had plummeted to just 14 lakh kilo litres, marking an impressive 46 percent decrease. Despite a 4.56 percent increase in traffic, electricity consumption rose by a mere 22.73 percent during the same period. This apart from saving on forex on imported oil, has also resulted in avoiding 6.27 Lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

These statistics provide insight into the anticipated results for 2023-24 as the electrification process approaches its conclusion, particularly with the ongoing efforts of the IR to attain net-zero emissions. When the IR achieves net-zero status by 2030, potentially making it the first in the world to do so, an estimated annual reduction of 60 million tonnes of CO2 emissions will be realized. This achievement is significant on a global scale given that the railway systems of the USA, Canada, France, Germany, and Japan are aiming to be net-zero by 2050.

Need for Modal Shift

India possesses a high proportion of dry bulk and semi-bulk products which are more suitable to be carried by train. However, rail modal share is not in sync. In some cases, even the bulk cargo over medium to long distances is carried by trucks. Compounding the issue is the fact that 75 percent of road freight operations are managed by small freight operators, each owning fewer than 5 trucks, operating at an efficiency level ranging between 40-50 percent. This inefficiency not only impacts the overall process but also contributes significantly to carbon emissions.

In the immediate term, transferring freight from high-emission modes like roads to lower-emission options such as rail transport holds significant potential for reducing overall transport sector emissions. In fact, in a recent European survey (McKinnon and Peterson 2021), freight modal shift was identified as the most cost-effective method of decarbonising logistics.

The advantages of modal transition extend far beyond addressing climate change, encompassing the reduction of transport expenses, traffic congestion, air pollution, and various externalities linked to road traffic. While railways commonly encounter challenges like restricted first and last-mile connections, minimum consignment sizes, and customer concerns regarding valuable freight, the ‘Truck on Trains’ model, currently implemented on the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC), presents a solution to tackle these issues in the immediate term. This intermodal approach not only saves transit time but also alleviates road congestion, enhances drivers’ quality of life by ensuring adequate rest, and most importantly reduces carbon emissions.

Consider this: transporting a single milk truck-tanker with a capacity of 30 tonnes of milk over the Western DFC section between Palanpur and Rewari instead of via road leads to an annual saving of approximately 381 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Now, envision the staggering potential for carbon emission reductions achievable through a significant shift in traffic toward this eco-friendly route.

By integrating rail and road transport for containerized goods, this model allows Railways to compete for a share in transporting higher-value, non-bulk goods. This strategic combination offers multifaceted advantages, creating a more efficient and environmentally friendly transportation landscape.

Apart from the above, Railways is also trying to integrate cargo O-D Pairs i.e. Originating and Destination points into the Railway system by establishing the Gati Shakti Cargo Terminals and thus enabling the development of industrial hubs, particularly around Dedicated Freight Corridor and facilitating the establishment of multi-modal hubs. A case in point is the multi-modal logistics hub near Dadri, a part of DMIC which will be connected to the New Dadri station of DFC through a 3.5-km-long rail approach track.

With the freeing up of tracks owing to DFC, it will be an enabler to cater to more passengers, thus bringing a modal shift in inter-city passenger movement.

Way Forward

By way of a fuel switch from diesel to electricity and through modal shift from road to rail, IR is avoiding carbon emissions within and outside its value chain respectively. Capitalizing on these efforts financially is crucial. However, the limiting factor is the lack of available methodologies under Clean Development Mechanism or Voluntary Carbon Markets.

The Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) has recently laid down the Voluntary Carbon markets in India wherein entities can register their projects as per the published sectoral methodologies for accounting greenhouse gas emission reduction, removal, or avoidance for issuance of Carbon Credits in the offset mechanism. In this context, BEE can consider developing methodologies to suit the needs of Railways in India.

The revenue generated from Carbon Credits to IR can be used to incentivise the customers to move from road to rail modelled in a manner somewhat like the Station-to-Station (STS) Rates Scheme of IR. UK through its Mode Shift Revenue Support Scheme (MSRS) assists companies with the operating costs associated with running rail or inland water freight transport instead of road.

However, for a comprehensive reduction in transport-related emissions, resolving infrastructure and rolling-stock limitations is crucial. Railways’ enhanced focus on these constraints shall accommodate the escalating logistics demands while substantially reducing the carbon footprint of logistics in India.

(This article is written by Nav Goel, an Indian Railway Accounts Service officer, for ET Infra. The views expressed are personal)

  • Published On Jan 15, 2024 at 09:06 AM IST

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