There are millions of vehicles on our roads, all contributing to the air pollution index.
It is a common sight to see heavy vehicles on the road, belching out black smoke from their exhaust and polluting the air around us. But that’s just the visible pollution – there are plenty of colourless, odourless pollutants from vehicle exhaust emissions being spewed into our atmosphere that are even more hazardous to health.
There are millions of vehicles on our roads, all contributing to the air pollution index. Yet, we have little choice as people need to move around, and motor vehicles with their internal combustion engines fuelled by petrol and diesel make it easy and convenient.
Mobility is a basic human need, just like food and shelter at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As the human race progresses, the demand for transportation keeps on growing too. In fact, the European Union (EU) Commission in its White Paper on Transport in 2011 recognised that “curbing mobility is not an option”; and hence, called for policymakers and transportation experts to deal with the challenges of fulfilling mobility needs in a smarter and more sustainable way.
This, of course, will take into account the reduction of carbon footprint, improvement on safety, and reduction in travel cost and health implications.
There are currently more than one billion vehicles in operation worldwide. These motor vehicles contribute 20% of the total greenhouse gas emission (GHG) and even a higher share of local pollution (the smog in Shanghai is a good example). We have been almost fully dependent on fossil fuels, although now we realise that it is not sustainable and has detrimental effects on our planet.
To deal with this, the 2011 EU White Paper on Transport laid a roadmap for a competitive and resource-efficient European Transportation System which ultimately aims to reduce 60% of GHG by 2050. But how can this be achieved?
Perhaps Finland could provide the answer. The country with 5.4 million population is opting for smart sustainable mobility that emphasizes on low carbon energy and renewable fuels such as hydrogen, biofuels and electricity. And to ensure that its ambition is no more than a rhetoric, the country came up with biofuel obligation law which calls for 20% biofuels in road transport by 2020. The biofuels will be generated from wastes, residues, non-food cellulosic material and lignocellulosic material (lignocellulose refers to plant dry matter and is the most abundantly available raw material on the Earth for the production of biofuels, mainly bio-ethanol).
Biofuels are growing in popularity, and the palm oil industry has capitalised on this. Imagine how much potential it has in reducing GHG if it is fully optimised as a biofuel? Malaysia, which is one of the largest producers of oil palm in the world, should emulate Finland and make it mandatory for the automobile industry to go the biofuel route as well.
Malaysia needs a game-changer where sustainable transportation is concerned. The need to address climate change (brought upon by GHG) is as important as the need for safe mobility. However, the beauty of addressing GHG in transportation is that it will also automatically address the safety issue. The formula is simple: shift from high carbon individual motor vehicles into low carbon mass transportation, or even into carbon-free (and fat burning!) modes of transportation such as cycling and walking.
While there is some progress in mass transportation in Malaysia, such as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project and electrified train from Kuala Lumpur to Padang Besar (pic), they are confined within the Klang Valley and western Peninsular. In all other Malaysian cities, it’s business as usual, and the issues remain unaddressed.
Now, imagine if our streets are connected by hydrogen powered trams, the latest green transportation which has just rolled out from a factory in China in March. Imagine if the trucks, buses and cars are also fuelled by hydrogen or electricity, emitting only water instead of toxic gases. And imagine taking along foldable bicycles while commuting on green public transportation, only to cycle or walk on safe pathways for the first and last mile of our journey.
Malaysia is certainly in dire need for a transportation policy that paves the way for sustainable mobility, which incorporate reducing GHG and the ensuring the safety of road users. If we need to, look no further than the Iskandar Malaysia Transportation Blueprint 2010-2030, which among others, plans to reduce automobile dependency and increase the share of public transportation by 60% in 2030.
Why wait? Why can’t we go green, travel safe, get healthier and save money at the same time?
Yusof Ghani is a researcher with the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research