But vehicular emission is by far the biggest source of ambient air pollution in Kathmandu Valley, and according to one study accounted for as much as 70% of all particulate matter at street level. A 2017 survey by the Department of Environment states that PM10 from diesel vehicles alone contributed 34% of the air pollution.
The lockdown also improved the nation’s economic health, by cutting Nepal’s petroleum import bill In 2018/19, Nepal’s import of petroleum products was at Rs200 billion — 2.2 times higher than the country’s total income from exports. Despite the recent collapse of global oil prices, this saving will be wiped out by the growth in the import bill in future if nothing is done.
Switching to electric public transport and battery vehicles to reduce the petroleum import bill by just 10% would save Rs21 billion a year – besides promoting domestic clean energy from hydropower, and improving air quality.
“What we are experiencing during the lockdown is just a short reprieve it only went to prove that we can clean up Kathmandu if we want,” says climate change expert Manjeet Dhakal. “But for long-term results we need to push cleaner energy options in road transport and the COVID-19 has provided us the perfect opportunity to electrify transportation andrevive our economy.”
However, with the economy in deep crisis the government will be under pressure to look for short-term measures to revive the economy. The temptation will be strong to go back to business as usual.
This was shown by the traffic jams this week after lockdown rules were relaxed. And when it is lifted, environmentalists are concerned that fear of the virus will keep people away from public transport, which already suffers from a lack of priority that it deserves.
“But the crisis is also an opportunity to reform our public transport system: digitise and electrify it and restructure routes,” urges Bhushan Tuladhar, director of Sajha Yatayat. “The government can play more active role by coming up with functioning operational guidelines and provide financial help to promote electric transport. It will be really unfortunate to not have used this chance.”
With the collapse in tourism, remittances and tax revenue there is pressure on the Finance Ministry to balance the annual budget due later this month. There are reports the ministry is thinking of removing the tax rebate on electric vehicles, which would be two steps back for the economy, health and environment.
So, despite COVID-19 proving the benefits of reducing fossil fuel consumption, experts find it unlikely the government is going to change policy. The benefits of switching to cleaner energy are long-term, and the current economic crisis needs immediate solutions.
Before the lockdown, despite lack of infrastructure such as public charging stations, electric vehicles were making up 10% all of all new sales. The government should now be pushing ahead with electrifying public transport, to narrow the trade deficit, lower air pollution, reduce Nepal’s carbon footprint and protect public health.
As part of the Paris Agreement, Nepal will have to submit the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) later this year. Incentives on electric vehicles will need to be increased in line with our national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as to reduce air pollution and protect public health.
Says Manjeet Dhakal: “The electric vehicle movement will go ahead whether the government wants it or not, but longer we delay incentives for renewable energy the more money we will waste and also damage public health.”