Memoirs from the late 1900s about Bhutan often talk about its infamous form of transit: a series of minibuses ruefully called ‘Vomit Comets’. Bhutan’s geography is almost entirely mountainous, so roads must follow the winding rivers to connect faraway districts. The roads themselves can be perilous: they are cut into the mountain and drop precipitously on one side. Erosion and landslides form constant obstacles. And until recently, roads across the country weren’t paved, yet the ‘Vomit Comets’ would take the bumpy, windy curves at breakneck speed.
Bhutanese officials struggle to adopt public transit that can accommodate this difficult geography. The country is too hilly and convoluted for trains, subways, or streetcars. The bus system has only gotten marginally better since the ‘Vomit Comet’ era, mostly because of asphalt. Cars remain the primary way to get around for those that can afford them.
The exhaust particles from fossil fuel combustion vehicles can exacerbate asthma and lead to premature deaths from heart disease
The combination of geography, poor public transit, and increased development means that the number of private vehicles in Bhutan has exploded. According to a 2018 Ministry of Information and Communications report, the number of private cars registered in Bhutan, including taxis, went from 25,000 in 2000 to 89,300 in 2017 — an increase of 357%, and equivalent to a car for every tenth person in a country with a population of only around 800,000.
“Expanding public transit would be my first priority,” says Tenzin Wangmo, the Chief Climate Officer of the National Environment Commission (NEC), when asked what environmental actions the NEC would take if they had enough funding.
The crush of cars, especially in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, has wider implications beyond traffic. Exhaust from vehicles pollutes Thimphu’s air. The exhaust particles from fossil fuel combustion vehicles can exacerbate asthma and lead to premature deaths from heart disease. And the amount of air pollution in Thimphu has doubled between 2007 and 2018. The pollutants, plus the roads, sidewalks, and buildings, also absorb heat, making the whole city hotter.
Vehicles that run on fossil fuels are also adding to Bhutan’s greenhouse gas emissions. The petroleum needed to run these cars must be shipped in, increasing Bhutan’s dependency on foreign extractive resources. In a country where electricity comes entirely from hydropower, most of Bhutan’s emissions come from the transportation sector. A Swiss consulting firm estimated that Bhutan’s emissions from vehicles would triple between 2018 and 2030 if the Bhutanese maintain the status quo. This could put Bhutan’s pledge of forever remaining carbon neutral in jeopardy.
The electric car transition?
Bhutan is promoting electric vehicle use to combat these growing emissions. However, this has not been an easy transition. A 2014 programme attempted to start this progress, but due to misconceptions and a lack of awareness, nothing came of it. Early in 2019, GEF and UNDP revitalised the electric vehicle programme with the goal of rolling out 300 electric vehicles in the taxi sector by 2021. Even under this new attempt, however, there are still a number of challenges.
“A lot of people don’t have trust or confidence in this technology,” said Phub Gyeltshen, the programme’s project manager. “We have had to work hard to convince them.”
Gyeltshen and his team face two major challenges regarding the uptake of electric vehicles by taxi drivers: trust and cost. The team is addressing the trust aspect through intensive education campaigns in schools and offices and through media interviews.
But electric vehicles are expensive, and the programme can only subsidise the cost so much. The funding from UNDP can cover 20%, but that isn’t enough for many taxi drivers. To make up the rest, Gyeltshen worked with the Royal Monetary Authority to set up a loan for 70% of the total cost of the electric vehicle. “We are seeing more people coming to us to take the risk now that taxi drivers only have to pay 10% initially out of pocket,” Gyeltshen said.
For those who are not taxi drivers, buying an electric car has “prohibitively expensive” costs, said Nyingtob Norbu, a consultant for Bhutan Analytics.
“The upfront costs are already quite high,” said Norbu, who wrote a cost-benefit analysis on electric vehicles in Bhutan in 2015. “There is not a sufficient incentive to nudge behaviour in that direction.”
It is difficult to say what the results are as of now, as the 67 taxi drivers who have purchased an electric vehicle don’t actually have it yet. Since the cars have to be transported from Japan, Korea, or China, they won’t arrive until March. But Gyeltshen is optimistic; the taxi drivers were allowed to test drive an electric vehicle before they purchased one, and many seemed pleased at its drivability and the distance it was able to travel under a single charge.
There is still the challenge of where to charge the car, however, and that is another aspect of the project that Gyeltshen and his team are still working out. There are five charging stations that were installed in 2015, but many more will be needed to meet the demand of the predicted 300 taxis if everything with this programme comes to fruition. According to Gyeltshen, 15 to 20 more charging stations are expected to be installed by the end of 2020, but those will only be installed in six western districts and Phuentsholing to the south.
While 15 to 20 charging stations may be suitable for the 300 taxis, for electric vehicle adoption to be fully realised, many more charging stations will need to be installed. A 2016 report from the World Bank estimated that for a low-uptake scenario of electric vehicles, 648 normal charging stations would be needed across the country.
According to Norbu, “Simply deploying 300 vehicles won’t be sufficient if you don’t significantly expand the quick charging infrastructure.”
Even if the introduction of 300 electric vehicles pans out as expected by 2021, the UNDP funding stops there. If Bhutan hopes to continue with an electric vehicle programme beyond next year, the government will have to find new sponsors – a process that could derail the programme’s future. Currently, a few international NGOs seem interested in continuing the funding, but nothing has been formalised.
While this programme of switching to electric vehicles will reduce the air pollution in Thimphu especially and lower dependency on oil, one thing would remain the same: Bhutan would still have a lot of cars. This programme doesn’t change the fact that Thimphu isn’t a public transit-friendly city and Bhutan isn’t a public transit-friendly country. The traffic will only keep getting worse.
“We also hope to improve the public bus system,” says Gyeltshen, discussing this challenge. “We are negotiating with the Green Climate Fund for their help to develop bus rapid transit.”
All of this, Gyeltshen emphasises, “is being discussed at the highest level by the cabinet.”