Can India chart a low-carbon future? The world might depend on it.

Today about 1.75 million electric rickshaws ply India’s roads. Photo for The Washington Post by Saumya Khandelwal

RANCHI, India – Dusk was falling as Sadanand Jha drove his electric three-wheeler through the streets of this north Indian city, passing vegetable markets, tea stalls and tiny storefronts on a cool evening before the pandemic.

He wove in and out of rush-hour traffic, darting to the curb to pick up passengers – some of them cranky and all of them in a hurry. The night air was alive with the sound of thudding engines, but Jha’s battery-powered royal blue rickshaw zipped along with only a whirring noise.

Until recently, Jha, 35, had been one of the vendors he now passed by in a blur. But then he spotted a new type of three-wheeler on the streets of Ranchi, the capital of one of India’s poorest states. The inexpensive, brightly colored vehicles spelled opportunity, a chance to earn more money and be his own boss.

With a bank loan and small down payment, Jha joined the ranks of an unlikely army of new-energy entrepreneurs. About 1.75 million electric rickshaws ply India’s roads – more than the total number of electric cars sold in the United States. The scrappy, slightly anarchic industry is a homegrown success story in India’s fight against climate change and debilitating air pollution.

It’s a small leap forward in a much longer race. As the world confronts a changing climate, India is a crucial unknown, and its decisions could either doom efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions – or jump-start them.

Daily emissions worldwide decreased by as much as 17% during the coronavirus pandemic, scientists say, as economies staggered under the impact of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. But experts believe that such effects on emissions are likely to be short-lived.

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India’s lockdown – one of the world’s most stringent – crushed economic activity in this nation of more than 1.3 billion people. By one estimate, India’s carbon dioxide emissions fell by 30% in April compared with the same month in 2019, according to analysts at the website Carbon Brief. Pollution also fell dramatically, bringing blue skies to New Delhi, notorious for its bad air.

The shutdown is now easing. While the restrictions carried a steep human and economic cost, they also suggested the possibility of a different future. India is expected to become the most-populous country in the world by 2027. It is also a nation that intends to make major leaps in its development in the coming decades. Achieving such leaps will require considerably more energy than India currently consumes.

How India generates that energy will have global repercussions. India’s challenge is to become a more prosperous country “without putting out enough carbon to break the world,” said Ajay Mathur, a former Indian climate negotiator and a member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s council on climate change.

India is now the planet’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, although it is still well behind China, the world’s largest emitter, and the United States. Measured per person, however, India’s emissions are ranked 140th in the world (the United States is 14th and China is 48th).

But India’s emissions are set to rise in the years ahead as economic growth propels demand for energy. The latest estimates indicate that emissions in India grew 1.8% in 2019. That’s a much slower pace than in 2018, although much of the deceleration was due to a sluggish economy. Coal will also remain a major part of India’s power sector in the coming decades, and the country is still building coal-fired plants.

India will be “a critically important part of the emerging trend in global emissions,” said Andrew Light, a senior climate negotiator for the United States under the Obama administration. Not only is India one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing emitters, he said, but it also faces acute vulnerabilities from a changing climate, including rising sea levels, melting glaciers and extreme weather events.

So far, no country has managed to lift itself out of poverty without a concomitant surge in emissions. China’s spectacular economic rise, for example, led to an explosive jump in its carbon emissions.

“When people think of India, they have the shadow of China in their minds,” said Navroz Dubash, an expert on climate change at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “People think, ‘Oh my goodness, India might do the same thing,’ ” he said. “If you think [India] will be a China repeat, it’s a fearful story. But it’s actually a huge opportunity.”

Indeed, India is the only major country in the world where actions to combat emissions are compatible with the goal of limiting global warming to an average of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), according to Climate Action Tracker, a joint initiative by two climate research organizations based in Germany. By contrast, the group says that China’s actions are “highly insufficient” with respect to that goal, while those of the United States are worse – it deems them “critically insufficient.”

In the coming years, India will need policies that not only lower pollution and carbon emissions but also create jobs for its growing workforce. In that regard, the spread of electric rickshaws is instructive. While India has struggled to increase the number of electric cars on the roads, battery-powered rickshaws have flourished with little help from the government and without any kind of charging infrastructure.

Unlike in the United States, where the transportation sector is the largest single contributor to emissions, in India the sector accounts for about a tenth of the total.

But its contribution is growing quickly as vehicle ownership expands. A government target of having 30% of vehicles running on battery power by 2030 appears out of reach, because such vehicles currently account for only a small fraction of new sales.

Meanwhile, Indian officials say they will meet two major pledges under the Paris agreement on climate change ahead of schedule. India has promised to ensure that 40% of its electricity-generation capacity comes from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. It will also reduce its “emissions intensity” – a ratio of total emissions to gross domestic product – by at least one-third compared with 2005 levels. India has increased its solar-energy capacity more than twelvefold since 2014 and launched initiatives to save electricity.

That has put the two Paris pledges within reach. “We are now at the stage where much, much to our surprise, we may reach both of these goals well before 2030, possibly in early 2020s,” Mathur said. “The question can also be asked: Should India’s targets have been more? But in 2015, nobody would have committed to that.”

In 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, a move that nullified the country’s commitment to cut emissions. China, meanwhile, made two major pledges under the accord, vowing to reduce its emissions intensity by at least 60% by 2030 and to generate 20% of its power from non-fossil fuels.

Some experts say that India can and must do more. “We should increase our ambition,” said Chandra Bhushan, a noted environmentalist. If the economics are right, he adds, India even has a chance to jump ahead to low-carbon, energy-efficient technologies.

“The rich would like to remain as they are,” Bhushan said. “I very strongly believe the poor will leapfrog the technology because it is affordable.”

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Dahru Mahli grew up in a village with no road in Lohardaga, a district in north India that is one of the country’s least developed areas. His father was a farm laborer. As a teenager, he migrated to Ranchi, a city about 50 miles away that is now home to 1 million people. For 21 years, he drove a bicycle rickshaw, pedaling customers around town before falling exhausted into bed each evening. He earned about $2.50 a day.

Then, a couple of years ago, he saw an electric rickshaw zipping past on the city’s streets. Mahli decided to rent one to see if what he heard was true: This was a way to make more money. Not only did he increase his take-home pay to about $7 a day but the work was far less strenuous than his old job. A little over a year ago, he took out a bank loan to buy a new electric rickshaw for his eldest son for a little more than $2,000.

Auto rickshaws – also sometimes called tuk-tuks – are a cheap and vital form of passenger transport in India, where car-ownership rates are low and public transportation remains limited. There are more than 3 million fuel-powered auto rickshaws in India, according to the latest available figures. They have three wheels, carry three to six passengers – more if you’re willing to squeeze – and run on diesel fuel, gasoline or compressed natural gas.

Smaller vehicles far outnumber cars in India for reasons of affordability. According to government figures, there are about 187 million scooters and motorcycles in the country compared with about 28 million cars and taxis. The government now believes the best prospects for electric vehicle sales are in two-wheelers, three-wheeled rickshaws and buses – not cars.

The rise of electric rickshaws was largely unplanned. At first, the size and speed of the vehicles – the fastest they go is about 20 miles an hour – meant that they escaped regulation under existing motor-vehicle laws. “No permit, no license, no documentation required,” recalled Ashish Keshri, an electric rickshaw dealer in Ranchi, the capital of the state of Jharkhand.

That quickly changed as the number of electric rickshaws, or “e-rickshaws” as they are known here, multiplied. In 2017, city officials found that there were at least 1,300 such vehicles and issued them passes to ply certain routes. But their number continued to multiply. They “grew like anything,” said Saurabh Verma, Ranchi’s former transport manager. There are now about 7,000 e-rickshaws registered with the authorities.

Teslas they are not: Powered by four large lead-acid batteries stored just under the passenger seats, e-rickshaws often have plastic windshields (or none at all). They come in a bewildering array of colors and brands – Indian Buggy, Queen, Terra Motors, Pushpak, Yatri, Etron, Kuku, Saarthi. They’re airier and easier to board than their fuel-powered equivalents, although less sturdy.

Ranchi may be the only city in the world where the municipal authorities found themselves grappling with a surfeit of electric vehicles. Such vehicles are “very good” for the environment, said Vijay Vijayvergiya, the city’s deputy mayor. But they are also “undisciplined,” he said, which created “a very vast problem for traffic.”

The battery-powered rickshaws thronged the city’s main thoroughfare, picking up passengers at will and snarling the already considerable congestion on an avenue named after Mohandas Gandhi, India’s revered independence leader.

There were other issues, too: While most drivers charged the vehicles’ large lead-acid batteries at home, some delivered them to garages that steal electricity, said Verma.

The rapid spread of e-rickshaws raised hopes that India could accelerate a broader shift toward electric vehicles. The government even mulled a move to require all two-wheel and three-wheel vehicles to go fully electric by 2026.

But it stepped away from such hard deadlines as India’s economic growth slowed well before the pandemic hit. “It will be a natural process,” Nitin Gadkari, the minister for road transport and highways, said in an interview last year. Having a “time limit is not the concept.”

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For years, India viewed global efforts to rein in emissions mainly as a “diplomatic problem” and a “source of pressure” to be resisted, said Dubash, of the Center for Policy Research. After all, developed countries had created the climate crisis, so it was their responsibility to fix it. Before the signing of the Paris climate accord in 2015, India’s environment minister repeatedly said that the developed world should “vacate carbon space” because “countries like India are coming.”

Such views are changing – and some say the tone is being set at the top. Like Trump, Modi is a right-leaning politician who espouses a strident variety of nationalism. But unlike the American leader, he does not deny that human activity is causing climate change. Modi is a “climate champion,” said Light, the former U.S. negotiator. The Indian prime minister is “personally committed in a way that we have not seen before on this particular issue in India.”

For the Indian government, the fight against climate change aligns with other objectives, including combating devastating air pollution and promoting energy independence. “We are spending too much of our budget on importing crude oil,” said Gadkari, the transport minister. “The principle of self-reliance is also equally important.”

In 2018, India installed almost as much new solar generating capacity as the United States did. Speaking at the United Nations in September, Modi said India would more than double its target for installed renewable-energy capacity to 450 gigawatts, although he did not commit to a time frame. “If we get to 450 gigawatts by 2030, it changes India’s infrastructure,” said Bhushan, the environmental activist. “That will be the right target.”

Electric rickshaws also have a role to play in India’s battle against emissions – provided they are charged by cleaner forms of energy. The vehicles are “a local solution to a local problem,” said Ambuj Sagar, an expert on climate change at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. They’re going after “a small part of transport emissions but one of the worst niches,” because the shorter, last-mile trips they make are likely to be more polluting.

Among the electric rickshaw drivers on the streets of Ranchi, there is very little talk about the environmental impact of their work. In a state where the per-capita income is less than $800 a year, e-rickshaws represented a scarce commodity: a way for people with comparatively little formal education to increase their earning potential.

Until recently, the drivers of the electric vehicles sold vegetables for a living, worked as security guards or pedaled bicycle rickshaws. Jha sold car parts to small vendors for more than a decade and earned about $170 a month.

A friend tipped him off to the opportunity presented by electric rickshaws. Jha started by renting one – and doubled his income. “It’s good to be your own boss,” he said, as he piloted his battered rickshaw on a loop around downtown Ranchi on a sunny afternoon.

While Jha has frustrations – the vehicle can overheat and spark if overloaded – his biggest complaint has been with the city authorities. To alleviate traffic jams, in September they banned e-rickshaws from Ranchi’s main thoroughfare, depriving drivers of a major source of income (they staged a protest, to no avail). Dealers, too, complained bitterly about the impact of the city’s decision on their businesses.

A far larger disruption lay ahead. In late March, when India’s lockdown began, all commercial transportation was banned on Ranchi’s streets. Jha’s rickshaw sat unused inside the gate of the small, unfinished building where he lives, its batteries removed to prevent damage. The restrictions on drivers were finally lifted earlier this week, but Jha fears business won’t be the same again.

He still hopes for a return to something like normal times. He remembers his daily drive home along narrow and bumpy roads, passing people leaving work and doing last-minute vegetable shopping. As he pulled into his gate, his elder son, 10, would dangle a black extension cord down from the second floor. Jha would plug in a boxy charger connected to two wires under the seat of his rickshaw, then flip a switch. Upstairs, there was a cup of tea and dinner, and the next morning, another day of driving.

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