By The Nation
Bangkok residents have learned a big lesson on air pollution over the past several weeks as levels of airborne particulates 2.5 microns or less in diameter soared above the safety limit in several districts. As of yesterday, some areas were still seeing “PM2.5” reaching 90 micrograms per cubic metre of air, far above the safe limit of 50 micrograms.
Many schools in the worst-affected areas were temporarily closed and residents have been increasingly wearing face masks to filter out the pollution. Other measures undertaken to reduce the threat have included creating artificial rain and spraying water into the air, while motorists are being urged to shut off their engines when not in motion.
These and other measures are acknowledged to be merely short-term remedies. More importantly, Bangkok and its neighbouring provinces need medium- and longer-term solutions to tackle the PM2.5 crisis. Basically, the problem stems from an ever-increasing number of vehicles burning fossil fuels plying Bangkok’s overcrowded streets. At last count, there were nearly 10 million personal vehicles including motorbikes registered in the capital.
Vehicle exhaust, especially from diesel engines commonly found in trucks from pickups to big rigs, are a major source of the air pollution. Unfortunately, the quality of diesel oil and engine specifications in Thailand still lags well behind that seen in more developed countries. The most popular pickup trucks sold in Thailand, for example, still use Euro-4 diesel fuel and engine specs and medium-sized and large trucks use Euro-3, whereas the standard typically found in more environmentally conscious countries is Euro-6.
It’s time for the government to speed the upgrade of mandatory emission standards for diesel-powered vehicles and new vehicles’ engine specifications, so that Bangkok can gradually become a safer place to live and visit. The Euro-6 regulations should become the new benchmark for Thailand. Europe is already preparing to enforce Euro-7 regulations next year.
Cleaner diesel fuel and more efficient engines on the city’s streets are a long-term solution worth pursuing. Once that’s underway, regulators need to better encourage the driving public’s adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). EVs sold in Thailand are still too expensive for most people to afford. A small fully electric Nissan EV costs nearly Bt2 million.
The government has made it policy to prod the automobile industry into a gradual shift in production towards plug-in hybrid Evs, followed by 100-per-cent EVs. If the air pollution is going to be tackled effectively, this timeline will have to be expedited.
Also of high priority is the completion of multiple mass-transit railway lines with electric trains, both elevated and underground, over the next five to 10 years. Thanks to the fast-tracking of several multibillion-baht lines in the past four years, Bangkok residents will soon be served by a modern network stretching more than 300 kilometres, the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia.
The long-term outlook for Bangkok’s air quality is likely to improve if the number of new cars, trucks and motorcycles on the roads recedes significantly in the near future. That will require the majority of residents and workers to be using the sprawling mass-transit network or driving EVs or vehicles burning greener diesel fuel.