Bhutan pledged to remain carbon neutral (CN) in perpetuity in 2009 and it was reinstated for the Paris Agreement in 2015. Not surprisingly, behind this bold declaration there are certain aspects of the underlying structure of the Bhutanese economy that requires attention (see Part 1 also). For example, one outrageous issue considering carbon neutrality for a low-income country like Bhutan is exporting clean hydroelectricity and importing petroleum products notably diesel and petrol to fuel it’s transport. Bhutan’s oil burden on GDP remains high whilst nullifying export revenue from hydropower – a macroeconomic mess and messier for carbon neutrality! We think we can correct this, and we do it in bits and pieces. Revising petrol and diesel standards and investing in a few electric vehicles will not bend the emission curve.
The 1.5℃ world calls for banning fossil-fuelled vehicles latest by 2035! What is Bhutan doing for electromobility and low carbon transport? What is holding Bhutan from upscaling transport electrification remains an open question. Is budget-constraint the primary inhibiting factor? Is it due to perceived burden sharing between related agencies to enable the transformation? Is it due to vested interest from the oil distributors? Is it simply not daring to try it out? Perhaps be aggressive and accelerate transport electrification, which can save enough capital of Ngultrum 10 billion per year from avoided oil import to alleviate budgetary constraints. Apparently, there is much to gain from transport electrification. In fact, it seems that Bhutan can build a 21st century economy around transport electrification.
Perhaps Bhutan’s public agencies could procure electric vehicles (EV) for all their new purchases as a starting point and phase out existing fossil fuelled fleet. Doing so can ease out barriers and spur market development. Electrify buses across Bhutan – provide co-finance alongside regulatory requirement. To support ambitious uptake of EVs, the electric distribution networks may require upgradation to avoid breakdown, which were found to occur even under EV penetration level of around 38% (recent research at the College of Science and Technology, Bhutan). We need sectoral co-ordination to contribute to national climate goal.
Bhutan also needs to decongest and reduce automobile dependence at this stage when the vehicle ownership is low. Perhaps try out light rail transport (LRT) in rapidly urbanising towns/cities like Thimphu, Paro, Gelephu and Bumthang. Try out LRT between Thimphu and nearby places like Paro, Wangdi and Punakha. The UNCRD report shows that it is possible. This can be undertaken through Public Private Partnership or on a long-term build- operate-own/transfer contracts. Bhutan has never seen mega activities other than the ‘comfortable’ mega-hydropower projects. It is easier said than done though. But decades into the future, we may have a cleaner and less congested urban areas – good for our lungs, better for our business and perhaps an imperative to retain our carbon neutral pledge. Furthermore, it is not hard to deduce that decongesting road traffic and transport electrification can contribute to improving our GNH index especially those indicators under the ecological domain. Will we regret to reap these multiple benefits?