Crunching Numbers on Transport CO2 Emissions in Developing Countries

Sudhir Gota

Without reliable data, transport emissions forecasting is as good as “fortune telling”

We are investing millions of dollars in transport sector in developing countries with minuscule data and inconsistent arguments.  In order to understand the implications of poor data, limited capacity and institutional strength and black-box approach, let us consider the case of India.

The official estimates suggest that the total number of registered vehicles in the country has increased from 5.4 million in 1981 to 99.6 million in 2007. Some researchers argue that the total number of vehicles on road can be as high as 40% less than the total registered vehicles[1](say 60 million in 2007) and some industry reports suggest that the on-road vehicular population exceeded 94.7 million in 2010[2]. The private vehicles once registered have 15 years validity. The information on actual number of on-road commercial vehicles is more or less accurate as they are registered every year. There is no annual record system of deregistration or scrappage. This results in a huge variation in estimating total number of active vehicles on road.

The most official estimate of transport CO2 emissions is the 2007 green house gas inventory[3]. It has been estimated that the road transport sector emitted, 121.21 million tons of CO2 in 2007. Surprisingly, the same institution which quantified the emissions had reported in a scientific journal[4]that the total number of motor vehicles in 2000 was 48 million and the CO2emissions from road transport sector is 105 million tons in 2000. Interestingly, while the number of vehicles doubled in 7 years, the emissions increased by only 16 million tons i.e. mere 15%.

The below table summarizes the activity data availability at national level. This is true for other developing countries also.
Registered vehicles
PARC data (vehicles on road)
Fuel split
Technology split
Average age
Emission factor
Average VKT/Year
Average VKT/Corridor type
Average speed per Corridor
Average occupancy
Yes ( city)
Average loading
Yes ( at corridor level)

The data issues get magnified further in freight sector. For example, the general lack of data and reliable data for India’s freight sector makes it difficult to understand, plan and manage freight transport, and makes it virtually impossible to measure the effectiveness of any policies to improve competitiveness and efficiency. For example, at present there is no mechanism in place for regular collecting and reporting data on freight and haulage (ton kilometer or TKM). No comprehensive data on freight movement is available that indicates origin, destination, type and size of freight carried on roads by motorized transport[5]. Furthermore, freight transport is not segregated by different types of trucks such as light commercial vehicles (LCVs), two-axle, three-axle, etc. As a consequence, road infrastructure plans and investments and policies are based on projections that have a high degree of variation and thus uncertainty, as shown in below table for road freight activity in billion ton-km.

Different Projections of Road Freight Activity in India
Billion ton-km by road
Road Transport Demand Forecast for 2000 AD revisited and demand forecast for 2021
The working group report for Road Transport for the eleventh Five Year Plan
Interim report of the expert group on low carbon strategies for inclusive growth
Building India Transforming the nation’s logistics infrastructure

The below figures summarizes many studies (14 different studies by reputed institutions) which have looked at road transport CO2 estimation and projections for business as usual growth for the Indian road transport in future.

There is no consistency (except that emissions are set to grow) among results and such a huge variation in baseline for the CO2 transport emissions in future in India is shocking.
1.       The variation in 2030 is approximately three times i.e. from 395 to 1200 million tons of CO2 emissions.
2.       This variation in 2050 is from 743 million tons to 2300 million tons.

The problem is not with only the future projections but also current estimates. For example, the 2005 estimates vary from 98 to 216 million tons. (see below figure)

If it is not even possible to establish the baseline, how do we measure the impact of policies?

The discussion is not India specific and it applies to many of our developing countries.  There is lack of transparency with regards to data availability and quality which results in questionable outcomes. Unfortunately we see little discussion on data availability and quality even though they remain the cornerstone of policy formulation and investments in transport sector.