Braving hurdles for green transport
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Braving hurdles for green transport

Traffic police inspect emissions from public buses' exhaust pipes in Bangkok. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
Traffic police inspect emissions from public buses' exhaust pipes in Bangkok. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

'Match your words with your actions." That was the message from teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg when she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 2019 instead of flying to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York.

The symbolic journey took two weeks. More importantly, achieving it took a strong conviction and determination to combat environmental ravages wrought by fossil-fuelled transportation.

Thailand, in alignment with global climate objectives, pledged a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases from land transportation within a decade. Now, it must demonstrate whether its actions can match its lofty promises.

Transportation contributes 30% of Thailand's carbon emissions, exceeding 80 million metric tonnes annually. Without intervention, emissions could escalate to 110 million tonnes by 2030 and may double 2.5 times by 2050.

Thailand committed to the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate action, vowing to reduce road transportation emissions from 80 to 62 million tonnes. Failure will threaten the economy, as it will deter investors and tourists.

While the government has policies promoting EVs, enhancing vehicle efficiency, developing transportation systems, and encouraging alternative energy, ineffective implementation hinders fossil fuel reduction.

Due to insufficient public transportation and logistics infrastructure, Thailand will have difficulty meeting its 2023 emission targets. This will make it more challenging to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and carbon net zero by 2065. But to thrive in global supply chains, Thailand must meet international carbon emission standards in transportation, which is crucial for tourism.

The signs are clear. The 2023 Sustainable Travel Report by reveals that 80% of respondents prioritise sustainable tourism, with 76% aiming for more eco-friendly travel and 43% willing to pay extra for cleaner transportation.

Google Flights also facilitates comparing flight CO2 emissions, allowing environmentally conscious travellers to make sustainable choices. Meanwhile, plans to disclose travel CO2 emission data, further supporting sustainable travel decisions.

Notably, there's a rising preference for low-CO2 public transportation, particularly trains.

Thailand's push to cut fossil fuel use encounters several hurdles, however. The government's ambitious 30% electric vehicle target by 2030 is hampered by slow public EV adoption. Despite policy backing, EVs are mostly limited to urban areas for short commutes, hindered by insufficient charging stations. Additionally, there's a missed chance to promote low-carbon options like electric motorcycles, buses, and trucks, which are major carbon emitters.

Furthermore, city public transport doesn't reduce fossil fuel usage as expected. Despite six mass transit rail routes in Bangkok, the use of fossil fuels grows unstopped due to inconvenient commutes. These routes cover only 28% of the city, with costly tickets, inadequate feeder systems, and poor ticketing integration, leading people to prefer private cars.

Meantime, public buses, with 269 routes covering 57% of Bangkok, lack government support to switch to electricity and modernise to improve public service. Congestion charges, which are successful in promoting public transportation in other countries, are still unenforced in Thailand.

Public transport woes outside Bangkok are even worse with limited area coverage and full dependence on fossil fuels -- 13% in Chachoengsao, 20% in Chiang Rai, 26% in Khon Kaen, 36% in Songkhla, and 46% in Ayutthaya.

Intercity rail remains limited, both for public and logistics services, perpetuating the public's reliance on carbon-intensive road transport.

Despite state projects on dual tracks, high-speed trains, and new routes, progress is slow, with 70% completion of the double-track system.

Moreover, inefficiencies in rail services fail to meet public demand. For instance, on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai route in 2022, 3,734 passengers used trains compared to 11,698 using air services.

The demand is there, but fewer people use trains due to inadequate frequency, long travel times, delays, unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, low service quality, and insufficient route coverage.

Likewise, rail freight suffers due to inefficiency: with just 164 usable locomotives and inadequate cargo transfer yards, high costs from multiple cargo lifts limit its usage to 26%, while 76% still rely on road transport.

Thailand's carbon emission problems are further aggravated by increasing air travel without effective control.

From an annual emission rate of 10% pre-Covid 19, it may spike 60-90% by 2050. Current short-term measures yield a mere 1% cut compared to business as usual, while long-term strategies, like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) proportions, are only in early planning.

Such inaction will threaten Thailand's tourism industry. The International Civil Aviation Organization has mandated net-zero goals for the aviation industry to comply with. If Thailand does not meet the standards, travellers may avoid the country, and airlines may avoid our inefficient airports to lessen their carbon footprints.

With global pressure for low-carbon transportation, Thailand has no choice. It must invest in green transportation, supporting low-carbon vehicles such as EV buses, bikes, and trucks.

To accelerate the use of EVs, the government must give financial support to bus operators to shift to EVs and grant route privileges to those using clean energy. Corporate income tax deductions and extended subsidies for EV buyers and truck owners until 2030 are also necessary.

Importantly, the government must end fossil fuel subsidies and introduce a carbon-based fuel tax.

The mass transit system also needs an overhaul. It involves transitioning to electric buses with route expansions and easy connections with the rail system. The interprovincial and intracity bus routes must also be expanded to provide comprehensive coverage.

Apart from giving bus operators financial assistance, the government must make it easy and convenient for people to use buses by increasing frequencies, improving bus stops and footpaths, and integrating fare and ticketing systems.

Also, Bangkok should establish low-emission zones, enforcing congestion charges to reduce car use and promote mass transit.

Switching from road transport to the rail system is also necessary to cut carbon emissions. To attract riders, trains must operate more efficiently by increasing frequencies and improving train services. Long-distance train routes must also receive state financial support to be able to provide service.

To boost freight rail transport, the government must expand the rail system's capacity, improve energy efficiency, and mandate clean fuel use.

To address aviation emissions, the government must support carbon-neutral Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), upgrade engines, and encourage hybrid/EV and hydrogen-powered engines. Reducing short-haul air travel, implementing flight taxes, and developing an efficient railway system will also give passengers an incentive to switch to trains.

Eco-friendly land and air transportation promise cleaner air, a better quality of life, and a robust economy. In short, matching Thailand's carbon reduction promise pays. Investing in green transport not only safeguards Thailand's integrity but also secures a strong, sustainable future.

Sumet Ongkittikul, PhD, is the Vice President and Research Director of Transportation and Logistics Policy at the Thailand Development Research Institute. This is an excerpt from his article "Recharging Thailand toward Low-Carbon Transport".

Sumet Ongkittikul

TDRI Director

Sumet Ongkittikul is Director for Transport and Logistics Policy at the Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the 'Bangkok Post' on alternate Wednesdays.

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