Eco-friendly transport: the way forward for Bhutan?

Environment

Bhutan is a carbon-neutral country but it seems like the status quo would change due to accelerated economic activities and increasing number of vehicles which has led to a number of environmental issues such as increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other air pollutants. This could threaten Bhutan’s pledge of forever remaining carbon neutral as it is believed that if there are no interventions, the GHG emission level is likely to triple by 2030.

One of the measures identified to combat this is transition to electric transport not only to control air pollution and traffic congestion. This would mean switching to a more eco-friendly and sustainable transport system. Reduction in the vehicle numbers and using electric public transportation can contribute to control of air pollution and easing of traffic congestion.

One of the major sources of air pollution in Bhutan is considered vehicle emission.

Emissions from the Bhutanese transport sector is projected to have more than doubled from a value of 177,000 tCO2 in 2005 to 376,000 tCO2 in 2020.

A Swiss consulting firm estimated that Bhutan’s emissions from vehicles would triple between 2018 and 2030 if Bhutan maintains the status quo.

Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Monggar top in terms of having the highest number of vehicles in the country. The number of motor vehicles as of February 29 for these five districts stands to 107,876. Thimphu records highest number of vehicles with 56,512 followed by Phuentsholing with 36,761 vehicles and Monggar has the least among the others with 2,168 vehicles.

A report titled Bhutan Vehicle Emission Reduction Road Map and Strategy, 2017–2025  recommends that Bhutan by 2025 should reduce average annual levels of all air pollutants by World Health Organization standards. By 2030, it could achieve 65%–95% reduction from 2015 levels in emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter from vehicles. Also by 2030, it could attain transport sector carbon dioxide emission levels that are 25% lower than under a business-as-usual scenario.

Initiatives

Bhutan is promoting electric vehicle (EV) use to battle these growing emissions however due to misconceptions and lack of advocacy the promotion, the initiative was not a success. Early in 2019, Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UNDP revitalized the electric vehicle program with the goal of switching 300 electric vehicles in the taxi sector by 2021; the project will reduce the cost on fuel import.  According to the National Statistics Bureau (NSB), in 2016 alone Bhutan spent more than Nu 7bn on fuel import.

The Ministry of Information and Communications is implementing the project together with UNDP Bhutan with financial support of US$ 3mn from the GEF. Also, Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) also increased the loan ceiling on the purchase of electric vehicles to 50%.

As of 2018, there are around 4,170 registered taxis in the country of which 1,885 taxis are registered in Thimphu alone.

National Environment Commission (NEC) statistics reveal that air pollution is emerging to be a major concern, posing risk to human health and environment. Two particulate matters called PM10 and PM 2.5, also known as particle pollution, is a common type of air pollution in Bhutan. It is the mixture of small particles and liquid droplets that get into the air and if inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lung, and cause serious health problems.

Taxis form only about five percent of the total vehicle categories but their contribution to carbon emission is three times higher due to higher travel intensity and mileage while there are only 170 city buses in the capital.

There are around 26 government EVs, 71 private EVs, four EV taxis and one diplomat EV in the country.

Tshering Dorji, a former senior Journalist said that transition to electric transport, from his view is not so much about traffic congestion and reducing the number but the transition must happen anyway because it is the future of transport industry. “Many global auto industries are now shifting to renewable and countries are adopting relevant policies for two reasons-dependence on fossil fuel is not sustainable and to reduce carbon emission,” he said.

“Innovation and technology is evolving and we must change the way we now see EVs that is as unfeasible and costly affair.  EVs are evolving and the cost of renewable energy is becoming affordable and efficiency is increasing. As we move to the 21st century, if we don’t embrace what is already becoming a global dynamics, we will be left behind,” Tshering Dorji said.

Dorji Wangchuk a veteran journalist and PhD fellow at the University of Macau whose research focuses includes mainstream and social media in Bhutan said he has long advocated for electrical energy to be used for mass transport and transit. “There are several benefits for this proposition.”

According to him, 15 years back he had raised the impending problem of traffic jams in one of his talk shows. But as usual people shrugged it off as a non-issue. “Electric trams are a solution to the growing traffic congestion. Second, it is clean energy and pollution-less. Third, we reduce the dependency on oil. Fourth, the era of cheap oil is coming to an end and as a small economy; we won’t be able to take any oil-shock that has rocked the world in the 1970s. In conclusion, yes, investment in electric transport system is a must, and wise too,” he added.

Kinley Tshering a former senior journalist and a creative director now said that switching to a more eco-friendly and sustainable transport system is the way forward.

“Environmentally, the switch to electric transport system will help reduce pollution and when we have a robust public transport system; people will be encouraged to use public transport, which will subsequently reduce traffic congestion. Currently, our public transport system requires a major overhaul. An efficient and effective public transport system can make travel and commute easier and cheaper. Unless there is such a public transport system, people will not find any incentive in using it,” he said.

Chencho Dema from Thimphu

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