Breathing the Kathmandu air in the winter months is equivalent to four million citizens involuntarily smoking three to four cigarettes every day
It’s time to promote electric vehicles.
Air pollution is a growing concern for all of us living in Nepal’s urban spaces. The air we breathe in reaches hazardous levels for about half the year. Citizens breathing highly polluted air are destined to suffer from chronic lungs and heart diseases. In fact, it is believed that breathing polluted air is responsible for as many as nine deaths per day in Kathmandu Valley. Drishti Kathmandu has been monitoring the level of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in the air of Kathmandu Valley for almost two years now. Its records show PM 2.5 levels got as high as 100 micrograms per cubic meter during the winter months of February and March. It is estimated that sustained exposure to air with 22 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking one cigarette per day.
So, breathing the Kathmandu air in the winter months is equivalent to four million citizens involuntarily smoking three to four cigarettes every day. Awareness levels in Kathmandu have evolved to a point where most smokers do not smoke inside restaurants and homes, especially in the presence of non-smokers. The Kathmandu air has gotten so bad in the winter months that it is equivalent to living in a room full of smoke. This is how we’ve allowed polluters to pollute the air we breathe in.
The Ministry of Population and Environment conducted a study to understand the sources of pollution in the Kathmandu Valley about 12 years ago. It identified four primary sources of PM 10 pollution in the Valley: vehicle emissions, street dust, open burning of waste and agriculture products and brick kilns. Emissions from vehicles plying the roads of the Valley was responsible for 38 percent of the PM 10 emissions according to that study. Open burning, street dust and brick kilns still remain causes for concern, but it is vehicle emissions that the city needs to tackle at the earliest. Although a similar study has not been done in the recent years, it is logical to assume that vehicle emissions occupy a larger portion of the air pollution now, since the dramatic increase in number of vehicles in the Valley in the last decade.
Cleaning the air
So, what can be done to help Kathmandu breathe in better air? If the solution to a room filled with smoke is to get rid of the smoker from the room, the solution to improving the Valley air has to be to remove the smoke emitting vehicles from the Valley. But people need to commute. How can people commute without vehicles? Through electric vehicles.
The problem with electric vehicles is that they are expensive and have certain limitations when compared to fuel-based combustion vehicles. But elsewhere it has been been aided by fiscal incentives from governments of those countries. The United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Japan, China and India are examples of a few countries that have promoted the use of electric vehicles through upfront cash incentives, tax-exemptions and credit facilities.
Nepal needs to design a suitable incentive package if it wants to promote electric vehicles. It is evident that lacking such incentives, electric vehicles will struggle to compete with traditional fuel-based vehicles and we will keep on adding smokers in the room we live in.
In addition to scrapping customs and excise duties on electric vehicles, the government should take a bold initiative to provide nothing less than cash incentives to a set number of electric vehicles. These promotional incentives should be provided to electric buses, electric vehicles to be used as taxis, private electric vehicles and electric scooters. A world-class 11-meter electric bus costs about Rs 30 million whereas a diesel bus with the same carrying capacity costs around Rs 3.5 million. Similarly, an average electric four-wheeler costs as much as Rs 3.5 million whereas similar petrol vehicles are available for about Rs 2.5 million. Electric two-wheelers also have close to a fifty thousand price disadvantage to its more polluting petrol cousins. Further reduction in import taxes and robust financial incentives are therefore required to make electric vehicles more price-competitive, at least at the initial phase.
Promotional programs cannot last forever. They need to be time bound. Therefore, the government can provide the promotional facility to a pre-determined number of vehicles insuring that all four types of vehicles mentioned above are provided cash incentive on a first-come-first-serve basis.
An incentive program of three billion rupees can be used to ensure that 100 electric buses, 500 electric taxis, 500 electric private cars and 10,000 electric scooters ply the streets of Kathmandu in the near future. Such an incentive program will have a catalytical effect. It will normalize the presence of electric vehicles and encourage importers to bring in better electric vehicles into the country. It will, more importantly, reduce the emissions of cancer-causing pollutants into the air and into our lungs.
Where should a poor country like Nepal come up with three billion rupees to subsidize rich people that can afford vehicles? From the environment tax of 50 paisa charged to every liter of petrol and diesel consumed in the country. The environment tax policy was implemented more than eight years ago and has raised close to Rs five billion till date. The government is yet to decide on how to spend this money. An incentive package to promote electric vehicles is a good program.
The electric vehicle revolution is here to stay. It is up to the political leadership to decide when Nepal wants to partake in it. This is an excellent opportunity for the Environment Minister, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister to forever etch their names in Nepali history as the leaders with the vision and will to jump start the Nepali electric vehicle revolution.
And, at any time one questions why the government should offer such favorable terms to promote electric vehicles, it should suffice to remind ourselves that the aim is to remove more smokers from the room we all live in.
The author is a partner with VRock & Company based in Kathmandu