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News & opinion

7 8月 2018

Clearing the air

The Asian Development Bank's Principal Energy Specialist, Sohail Hasnie, explains how a clear-air revolution starts with electric vehicles, but the transition won't be an easy one.

About 15 years ago, the unthinkable happened (almost) overnight.

Particulate pollution in Dhaka, one of Asia’s most polluted megacities, suddenly dropped by 30%–40%. The bluish haze disappeared, and the air was again breathable. All this happened almost immediately in 2003 after the Bangladesh government banned smoke-belching gasoline tricycles, the city’s top pollution source, and replaced them with new vehicles running on compressed natural gas.

Those of us living in similarly congested cities dream that this will happen to us. The statistics on urban air pollution and its impact on our health are shocking. Dhaka’s experience shows that the future can bring dramatic changes in urban air quality in Asia, thanks to innovation in the energy and transport sectors.

Transport accounts for most of the world’s oil consumption, and about 40% of coal is used for generating electricity. The combination of the two is the main cause of poor air quality in our cities. The problem historically has been that there were no viable alternatives to filling our cars with petrol, or burning coal to keep the lights on.

Now, we have a choice

First, coal is slowly dying. Building and operating coal power plants has become more expensive than solar power in many countries. And solar prices only continue to drop. Second, the electric car has arrived. India and China are working to ensure 100% of new vehicle sales are electric by 2030. Soon, electric vehicles will be cheaper to purchase than gasoline-powered cars. Their operating costs are already 80% lower. Third, lithium-ion cells are becoming much more affordable. Once retrofitting old cars to battery power becomes a mainstream option, we won’t all have to be able afford a Tesla to own an electric car. Finally, solar panels will sit on almost all of our rooftops, either as a mandatory requirement or as a cheap source of power. One in three Australian households already has rooftop solar – and that has happened in just the last five years.

Innovations in technology and energy will bring dramatic changes to the air quality of Asia’s cities, but the transition won’t be easy.

These four factors are now forcing the private sector — even oil companies — to invest heavily in solar power and electric vehicles. Our cities may soon be free of both air and noise pollution, but the transition will not be easy.

The revolution will start with broad public awareness of how clean energy can end urban pollution. This is a must to overcome the loud, if dwindling, number of skeptics.

Electric cars are a policy choice to address pollution, not traffic. With the electric car, the number of vehicles on the roads will go up slowly. That should drop in the long term as artificial intelligence takes over driving, and groups of autonomous cars running in sync create tomorrow’s trams and buses. There will be less demand for car parks, with more spaces available in inner cities.

Apartments could soon start "packaging" free unlimited charging for electric vehicles as part of the rental. This costs property owners $5–$7 a day, or at most, $150 a month – and is free if using rooftop solar.

There’s great opportunity to build pay-as-you-charge stations for EV charging (and discharging, to buy back people’s electricity generated at home). Batteries can be sold for homes on a lease-to-own basis, or packaged as part of a new house, something that’s becoming common in Australia.

The electric car revolution is so disruptive that it looks set to create a multi-billion-dollar market in south-east Asia, a new hub for electric-vehicle manufacturing. Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are poised to employ millions of workers to “make electric”.

Let’s stop trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools. We should instead leapfrog to solutions based on readily available technology to build pollution-free cities in Asia. Once we embrace electric vehicles and solar power, retail demand for coal and oil will drop dramatically. Fossil fuels should stay where they belong: underground.

This is an extract from Modus Asia edition, Q2 2018