Bhutan may be known as the only carbon-neutral country, but greenhouse gas (GHG) emission from the transport sector could triple by 2030, if actions are not taken, an Asian Development Bank’s policy brief warns.

The country’s second national communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2011 reported that GHG emissions from the transport sector accounted for about 20 percent of the country’s total emissions in 2000. By the end of 2012, this increased to about 30 percent.

Given the average vehicle ownership growth rate of 15 percent a year, the report stated that GHG emissions from the transport sector are expected to grow further.

In growing urban areas, particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pose a major public health concern. In Thimphu, for example, the annual average level of PM with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less, has been increasing. Since 2009, the ADB stated that PM levels have consistently been higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization.

Major sources of air pollutants are passenger cars and heavy-duty vehicles, including diesel-powered large and medium-sized trucks and buses. 

This accounts for 73 percent of total vehicles in the country and were responsible for 70 to 90 percent of local pollutant and nearly 60 percent of GHG emission.

Based on current trends of vehicle acquisition and fuel import standards, and without any policy interventions, vehicle inventory in Bhutan is projected to increase to 180,000 by 2030. With this, emissions from the domestic transport sector may reach 660,000 tons carbon dioxide equivalent in 2030.

It was also identified that sulfur, which exist in motor fuel is a major pollutant. Its presence in fuels prevents the adoption of major pollution control technologies such as diesel particle filters, particulate filters, and nitrogen oxide (NOx) absorbers. “Reducing the sulfur content of fuels is necessary in reducing vehicle emissions in Bhutan,” the report stated.

However, Bhutan doesn’t have fuel refineries and imports all its fuels from India. This means that Bhutan will have to adhere to the fuel standards in India, who is also working on lowering the sulfur content of its fuels to as little as 50 parts per million (ppm) by 2018 and 10 ppm by 2021.

Consequently, Sulphur dioxide emission in Bhutan could go down by as much as 80 percent by 2018 and 95 percent by 2021.

While there is no direct cost for Bhutan, it is estimated that the price of fuel will increase by Nu1–Nu2 per liter.

ADB recommends Bhutan to upgrade its fuel quality testing procedures. It was also recommended that the country should upgrade its vehicle emission standards and revise its standard along with India, who is a major source of vehicle in Bhutan. India is already in the process of moving to Euro 4 and Euro 6 by 2021. Bhutan’s standard is Euro 2.

The economic benefits of reduced health and pollution costs are greater than the anticipated higher cost of vehicles that will use the new technology to comply with the stricter emission standards. The cumulative net economic benefit of this policy is calculated at USD12M or about Nu800Mby 2030.

“It would also be necessary for Bhutan to improve its regulations, strengthen enforcement, and enhance the testing procedures and execution to minimize errors and prevent high-emitting vehicles from passing the vehicle emission inspection test,” the report stated.

The policy brief also suggests restricting diesel cars and light-duty vehicles. Even with the best available diesel technologies, the real-world performance of diesel engines results in high PM and nitrogen dioxide  emissions. In Bhutan, diesel vehicles comprise only 40 percent of the total number of vehicles in use, yet they are the largest polluters, contributing 98 percent of PM, 95 percent of nitrogen dioxide, and 87 percent of sulphur dioxide emissions in the country.

There is no age limit for vehicles in Bhutan.

Another suggestion is to promote low-carbon vehicles like Hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric cars. The government’s plans to tap international climate finance could go well with low-carbon commercial vehicle strategy, favoring electric mobility and focusing on taxis, buses, and urban freight vehicles.

“Overall, Bhutan is poised for reduced vehicle emissions and a low- carbon vehicle strategy. It is one of a few countries in the world with a zero-emission grid based on renewables,” the report stated.

Tshering Dorji