Air Quality Vs. Automobiles [Bhutan’s Story]

The air quality in Bhutan has long been regarded as “pristine”. We are proud of [rightly so] our 71% forest coverage of the total geographical area (information from National Forest Inventory of Bhutan with the definition of forest cover from National Forest Policy 2011 followed) and little over 50% of our country designated as protected area network, providing a “safe” refuge to diverse flora and fauna.

Second National Communication of Bhutan stated that in the year 2000, Bhutan’s total greenhouse gas emissions, excluding land-use change and forestry, to be 1,559.56 Gg CO2 –equivalent and CO2 sequestration by our forests to be 6,309.6 Gg. This would have meant that we sequestered more than 4500 Gg CO2-equivalent in the year 2000, making Bhutan net sink for Green House Gas emissions. However, rapid economic growth together with an increase in emission from the increase in the number of automobiles plying on our road is now starting to question the air quality of Bhutan.

According to the Strategy for Air-Quality Assessment and Management in Bhutan published by NEC in 2010, exhaust emissions from diesel and petrol vehicles; industries; wood stove; wind-blown dust and forest fires are the primary sources of air pollution in Bhutan. Among these primary sources of air pollution in Bhutan, let’s look at vehicular emission in the context of vehicle imports.

Vehicle import in the country has seen a steady increase [though there are no consistencies in data as different sources have different numbers]. According to the Statistical Year Book 2018, the number of registered vehicles increased from just 69,202 in 2014 to 96,307 in 2018. This may have contributed to the increase in import of diesel and petrol: 2014 [117,615 KL/MT; 31,458 KL/MT] to 2017 [144,620.7 KL/MT; 39,119.5 KL/MT].

Economy Watch on November 23, 2013, reported that “Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay announced this week that all official government vehicles would be replaced with the Nissan Leaf, an electric car, by March 2014; while taxis and family cars are expected to be gradually replaced with electric vehicles.” While it was an ambitious goal to become a leader in the use of electric vehicles in Bhutan, the electric vehicle still remains a distant dream for Bhutan, let alone “March 2014”. Of course, it felt nice to hear when the announcement was made. The lesson as always remains, poor implementation of the policies; visions; objective, etc. [you name it].

Having almost [let me say failed] failed to achieve the target to go electric, let’s turn our attention to emission testing centers we have for our automobiles. Let me admit here that, whenever I took my vehicle for emission test, I was never worried that my vehicle might fail the test. This may be because; I owned a fairly new car [sorry I have to blow my own trumpet here😝] or it may be because I never heard of any vehicles having failed emission test. Should the ‘later’ remain true, it may be because our authorized testing center(s) operated in a “compassionate” ways by not failing even those failing the test or their equipment to test emissions are out-dated. This calls for the need to either up-grade the equipment used to test emission or to bring in another competitor in the market who would report the “truth” with systematic reporting and information storage system in place. I place this on record since it is a common sight to see many vehicles on our road following which would be like driving in the smog. Pollution needs to be seriously looked into since it brings along many health hazards.

According to the World Health Organization, ambient (outdoor) air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide per year in 2016. This mortality is expected to have caused due to exposure to small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), as there is evidence of it causing cardiovascular and respiratory disease and cancers. Air pollutants are also responsible for a number of adverse environmental effects, such as acid rain, the death of forests, or reduced atmospheric visibility – not a piece of good news for Bhutan’s forest.

Last but not the LEAST, emissions of greenhouse gases from combustion of fossil fuels are associated with the global warming of Earth’s climate. Hopefully, the recent news on [shared link] pollution in Thimphu shall help us to pull our socks and work towards improving our own environment for the survival of ourselves.

Paldhen Drukpa Gyel-Lo

Air quality in Thimphu hits permissible ceiling

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