Stop being so fuellish

Uzair Younus argues for policy switch to electric vehicles in Pakistan

Stop being so fuellish
A pedestrian walking on Karachi’s congested M.A. Jinnah Road will probably need more than one wet wipe to cleanse the grime on his or her face. While the pollutants lodged on the skin can be wiped away, microscopic particles in the air, known as PM10 and PM2.5 particulates, are harder to efface as they become buried deep in the lungs. These particulates are usually spewed forth by coal power plants and construction work but a significant proportion also comes from the tailpipes of vehicles on our roads. The solution to this problem is electric vehicles, which if adopted can not only make Pakistan’s polluted cities cleaner but its economy more innovative as well.
Pakistan's imports of finished cars and motorcycles has increased in value by 102% to $238 million

Why go electric?

Pakistan’s cities are reaching a breaking point, both in terms of air pollution and congestion. According to the World Health Organization’s Urban Ambient Air Pollution database, the country has three of the world’s twenty most polluted cities: Peshawar (3), Rawalpindi (4) and Karachi (14). The rapid pace of urbanization and the ever-increasing desire of a growing middle class to buy vehicles is fueling this crisis.

Karachi’s population has increased 60%, Lahore’s by 116%, and Peshawar’s by 100% in the last 19 years, according to provisional census data. A growing economy has meant that total car sales have increased 53% to 181,146, while motorcycle sales have increased 75% to 1.36 million from 2013-14 to 2015-16, according to data made available by the Pakistan Automotive Manufacturers Association. During this same period, Pakistan’s imports of finished cars and motorcycles has increased in value by 102% to $238 million.

Pakistan’s cities are not the only ones facing this crisis. India’s capital New Delhi is so polluted that spending a day outside it is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes. The Chinese government had to shut down factories in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics to improve Beijing’s air quality and pictures of smog covering major cities go viral every few months.

Global response

Recognizing a need to improve air quality, policy makers from India and China to France and the United Kingdom have announced plans to phase out the development and sale of internal combustion engines. France and the UK have announced that they will work on engines running on fossil fuels to get them out of the system by 2040, while India has announced an ambitious plan to sell only electric vehicles by 2030. China, the world’s largest electric vehicle market, has just released an aggressive plan to phase out non-electric vehicles: starting in 2019, at least 10% of the total output of major automakers will have to be electric vehicles. This target will increase to 12% in 2020, after which the Chinese government will announce higher annual targets.

Reducing air pollution and curbing greenhouse gas emissions is not the only reason why countries are pursuing these goals. Policymakers also recognize that achieving leadership in electric vehicle technology will give their countries significant economic advantages, both in terms of innovation and reducing their dependence on energy imports. It is no coincidence that the countries pushing a bold electric vehicle policy are also the ones that are investing heavily in the research and development of renewable energy. By having the intellectual property and manufacturing ability to produce electric vehicles and renewable energy, they will be able to not only make themselves energy independent, but also grow exponentially by exporting their products to the rest of the world.

Pakistanis are familiar with the economic chaos rising oil prices inflict on the economy and on their households. Pursuing a bold push towards electrifying the country’s vehicles while investing in clean and renewable power would not only improve air quality, but also make Pakistan an innovative and energy-independent economy.
France and the UK have announced that they will work on engines running on fossil fuels to get them out of the system by 2040, while India has announced an ambitious plan to sell only electric vehicles by 2030

Powering up

Detractors might argue that this is a bold but unachievable target since Pakistan can barely supply uninterrupted power to its citizens. It is true that Pakistan’s power sector is unreliable and buried in circular debt. However, a push towards the adoption of electric vehicles can provide the impetus for major reforms in the power sector. The last few years have seen significant investment in the power sector but tepid reforms. An ambitious goal that seeks to electrify Pakistan’s vehicles in the next decade can attract further investment and innovation in the economy, especially if it is accompanied by structural reforms. The government can signal its intent by converting metro buses to electric powertrains and by constituting an independent panel of policymakers and industry leaders to propose and oversee the implementation of this plan.

In the Musharraf era, the government encouraged people to switch their cars from petrol and diesel to CNG, leading to massive private sector investment in the area. While that policy was disastrous for various reasons, the fact is that when encouraged by the government and attracted by economic incentives, investors and consumers switched to CNG. Electric vehicles are at least 40% more efficient than vehicles that rely on fossil fuels, and if powered by clean and renewable energy, are far more cost-effective. Given this reality, consumers will switch to electric vehicles, provided that the right policy framework is in place.

Pakistan’s policymakers have not set its citizens a bold target since the country become a nuclear power at the end of the 20th century. The switch to electric vehicles and a goal to become energy independent could be the rallying cry that propels the country forward in the 21st century.

Uzair Younus is an analyst at Albright Stonebridge Group and can be reached