Climaction Society

Greenwashing 101

Illustration: S. Belmann  

Contributing between 13-15% of CO2 emissions, the transport industry needs to become greener. But that can come in “true” ways – driving more efficiently, switching from individual to mass transit, avoiding unnecessary travel and flying less or in “false” ways. The latter is the subject of this article.

Greenwashing. That’s advertising-speak for making a product appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Greenwashing is becoming more common as more of us are becoming interested in the environment. But instead of truly becoming green (reducing CO2 or other greenhouse gas emissions or reducing the water footprint), it has become a fashionable tag. Say, for instance, the “Reuse your bedsheets” pledge in 5 star hotels, the uncertified “organic” everything, the biofuel use and the electric car to name a few.

Electric Vehicles have captured public imagination as a great solution to global warming, a wonderful image of a guilt free transport option. But are they green? Do they effectively address the greatest environmental problem: global warming?

To answer that let us consider the emissions of an electric vehicle. There are emissions involved in the manufacturing of the vehicle itself and then there are the emissions associated with the tailpipe or with the combustion of the fuel used to power the vehicle.

Tailpipe emissions. An electrically powered vehicle has none. And this is the reason why it is considered “green”. But is that really true? Not in all countries, for the vehicle is powered by the grid and the grid in most countries is powered by fossil fuels.

For India, based on the information from the Ministry of Power, our grid is about 60% coal-powered, 16% hydel, 12% “Other renewable” and 9% gas. In reality, the share of coal in generated units is probably a little higher, given that wind and hydel tend to be seasonal. The Central Electrical Administration has used emission factors to arrive at 0.82 tons of CO2 per MWh of power generated. This means that for every unit of electricity generated, 820 grams of CO2 are emitted. Other greenhouse gases are emitted too but not captured in this estimation.

But the electric car is not charged at the point of generation. It is charged at our homes. So the electricity has to travel all the way from the point of generation to the point of use, subjecting itself to a transmission and distribution loss. In India, this is about 23% officially and much higher unofficially. Some part of the loss is technical – i.e., losses that are physical in nature – due to friction, heat and other line losses caused both by the nature of transmission and by the aging equipment or overloading. The other part is “commercial” – units that are generated and used but not paid for – these include theft, agricultural units etc. There can be many points of view on how to assign the emissions caused by “lost” units, but, at the very least, we need to account for transmission losses when calculating the CO2 emissions emitted when a unit of electricity is consumed.

Using the above, the CO2 footprint (or the grams of CO2 emitted per kilometre travelled) is comparable for a Reva e20 at ~100 grams per km and a Nano at ~ 115 grams per km or a Maruti Alto 800 at 120 CO2 per km based on similar assumptions of driving conditions. This assumes that the Reva gives 90 km for a full charge, while the Nano does about 20 km per litre and the Alto, ~ 19 kmpl. Moreover, several studies show that if we were to add manufacturing CO2 emissions, or the emissions involved in making a car, an electric car in India has larger CO2 lifetime emissions than a comparable petrol car.

So, electric vehicles in India are no “greener” from a global warming perspective than comparable compact cars. They do have lower tailpipe emissions – the small particles of soot and other particulate matter that come out of the exhaust pipe of petrol, and especially diesel powered vehicles. But when there are so few electrical vehicles on the road (0.08% of the total vehicle stock globally in 2014), this is unlikely to make a large impact and with such a small gain in lifetime emissions not worth the effort to try.

Yet, the government of India has committed about Rs. 795 crore in 2015-16 towards the “Faster Adoption and Manufacture of Electric Vehicles” with an incentive of upto Rs. 1.38 Lakhs per vehicle as a demand incentive for electric cars. This is one subsidy that is not green.

( Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.

The next article in this series will appear on September 18. Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 7:37:29 PM |

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