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As countries in South-East Asia begin to suffocate on air polluted by petroleum-powered cars and industrial factories, it is time for the region to make a quick U-turn towards electric vehicles (EVs), now making inroads in China, Europe and the US.   
 
The irony is that these electric vehicles were, in the late 19th century up to early 20th century, the darling of the industrial world and the car driving population in the US. EVs were so popular that even President Woodrow Wilson and his secret service agents toured Washington DC, in their Milburn Electrics. (1)
 
But because of the limitations of their range and batteries at that time, electric cars lost their popularity. The discovery of oil reserves in Texas, Oklahoma and California led to the availability of cheap gasoline for internal combustion engines and ever-improving technology did the rest.

“But we cannot wait for profitability to arrive in order to solve urgent problems like the climate crisis and environmental pollution.”

Crispin Maslog

For the next 100 years internal combustion engines became the dominant propulsion method for motor vehicles until people, especially scientists, started to complain that gasoline engines were polluting the environment.  Today, there is a trend towards electric vehicles, which are expected to increase from two per cent of global share in 2016 to 22 per cent by 2030. (1)
 

EVs comeback via China

If America was the birthplace of the electric car, China is now the world’s capital for electric cars. How did this happen? The answer: centralised planning.
 
Martial Beck, former executive vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, tells SciDev.Net in an interview: “China is now leading in EVs because they have made it mandatory for all their car manufacturers to produce at least 10 per cent of their total output as EVs. I am not sure if Europe has imposed anything as drastic at this.”
 
China started small with bikes. In 1999, Beijing designated electric two-wheelers that could not go faster than 20 kilometres per hour as “bicycles”. That meant they could be used without a license or registration and could travel in bicycle lanes. Next, China restricted the ownership of gasoline-powered two-wheelers in the central parts of cities. (2)
 
After a decade or so, the country applied what it learned with two-wheelers to speed up the electrification of four-wheelers. China now has more than 100 electric car makers, along with hundreds of companies that manufacture components for electric cars. The heart of these components is the battery — the most expensive part. China has a tight grip on the global supply of the elements needed to manufacture them.
 
Europe fell in behind China as the world’s largest plug-in market as it also decided to aggressively promote electric vehicles. Several European governments have set aside public subsidies and other non-financial incentives to promote their widespread adoption. (3)
 
Beck confirms that more than one million plug-in electric passenger cars and vans had been registered in Europe by June 2018. “Today, stimuli for electrically-chargeable cars are available in 24 out of the 28 EU states. However, just 12 EU member states offer bonus payments or premiums to buyers. Most countries only grant tax reductions or exemptions for electric cars.”
 
The US is in third place as a world producer of EVs. The US plug-in EV programme is backed by the federal, state and local governments. Cumulative sales in the US totalled one million highway-legal plug-in EVs as of September 2018. (4)

South-East Asia: Quo Vadis?

Why has the 10-member ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) bloc, with a population close to 700 million and a region known to quickly embrace new technologies, not joined the EV bandwagon?

One sees few electric vehicles for sale at car dealerships in the region. Bain & Company Consulting noted that EVs are still rare on the streets of Singapore or Thailand. (3)

Consumer interest is missing and as long as nobody is buying, there is little economic incentive to push EVs into South-East Asian markets.

One possible explanation is that the need for a cheaper, more environmentally friendly land transportation mode, like private EVs, has not been felt strongly enough in the region yet.

The region’s lack of interest in EVs may be related to its geography. ASEAN lives with three geographic facts —the archipelagos of Indonesia, Philippines and to some extent Malaysia, the island states of Singapore and Brunei, and the five-country medium-size land mass of the rest of the ASEAN from Cambodia to Vietnam.

These small, mostly archipelagic countries do not suffer the pollution that is the driving force for the demand for cleaner air in huge countries like China.

Beck thinks ASEAN has not adopted EVs because their governments have more pressing concerns. “Even if they know that EVs can solve some of their problems, especially pollution, they also know that a certain scale is needed for the market to develop, and for it to really have an impact.” 

But we cannot wait for profitability to arrive in order to solve urgent problems like the climate crisis and environmental pollution.

It is time ASEAN governments address the life and death issues of the air we breathe and the water we drink at their next ministerial meeting. The Australian bush fires and the Indonesian peat forest fires are reminders enough of the climate crisis the region faces.  

Why not organise an ASEAN EVs consortium that can produce electric vehicles for the ASEAN market? We already have prototypes of electric bikes and electric motorcycles in Indonesia that can be produced for the ASEAN market. How about the idea of smaller electric cars that can navigate more easily in the traffic of ASEAN cities like Manila, Jakarta and Bangkok?

We must confront —before it is too late — the growing threat to our environment.

The initiative needs to come from ASEAN governments, as in the case of China and Europe. Government subsidies and incentives must come into play in the interests of a cleaner environment. 
 
Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science professor, Silliman University and University of the Philippines Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

References

1. Wikipedia, retrieved 27 January 2020
2. Finding a New Route to Southeast Asia’s Electric Vehicle Future, by Dale Hardcastle, Raymond Tsang and Francesco Cigala, June 26, 2019
3. Global EV Outlook 2019, Scaling up the transition to electric mobility, Technology report — May 2019
4. Access, Electric Two-Wheelers in China: Promise, Progress and Potential