As pollution rises to unhealthy levels in Ho Chi Minh City, Peter Cornish takes a look at some possible solutions. Photos by Romain Garrigue.

It’s estimated that more than 90% of the world’s population is breathing air that exceeds safety limits. That’s a worrying figure.

Vietnam’s air quality is among the worst in the world, ranking in the top ten countries for air pollution in the Environmental Performance Index. It’s getting harder to breathe. It’s not too late to look for solutions, but we better hurry up about it.

Social media has been awash in recent weeks with alarming reports from the Real Time Air Quality Index [AQI] telling us what many already know: that Ho Chi Minh City has a pollution problem. It’s not a problem that’s going to blow away with the wind. It’s at concerning levels and it’s here to stay. And the entire population is likely to be affected.

What we breathe in Vietnam’s major cities and urban areas is filled with fine dirt and poisonous gases, and our air quality is deteriorating rapidly. As with cities around the world, the air in HCMC contains two types of particle matter. The larger of the two, PM10, contains particles that are less than 10 micrometres in diameter which accumulate in your lungs over time.

The second particle, PM2.5, is the real concern. Little more than 1/30th the width of a human hair, the tiny PM2.5 particle makes its way deep in to your lungs, where it can cause a whole host of ailments including lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes. The ambient air we take for granted is responsible for millions of deaths each year.

For the last three years, Adrian Watts, Head of School at International School of Ho Chi Minh City, has been measuring pollution levels with a handheld AQI monitor every morning, and at regular intervals throughout the day. “I take a reading first thing in the morning. If it’s red, then there’s no outdoor play for the students until readings drop to yellow. This is our commitment to their parents,” Watts explained to me.

Vietnam PollutionISHCMC takes the threat of dangerous pollution levels seriously and has invested in a state-of-the-art air purification system for their two campuses, ensuring that what is breathed in by students and staff remains safe. The new campus in District 2’s Thao Dien has a three-level filtration system providing an extremely high level of air purification. The building itself is under pressure, so that air flows out, rather than in.

While HCMC is not yet reaching the hazardous levels of Beijing, Hong Kong or Hanoi, the World Health Organisation is warning our annual average of PM2,5 particle matter per cubic metre is three times the acceptable rate.

Safe air contains a maximum average of 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre. In HCMC we average more than 30. The 2016 Environmental Protection Index (EPI) by Yale University ranked HCMC 131 out of 180 respondent countries.

The Real Time Air Quality Index is consistently ranking pollution levels in HCMC as ‘unhealthy’, advising us that active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion.

But with increasing frequency the rankings are ‘extremely unhealthy’ or even ‘hazardous’. The warnings and advice are straight forward: everyone may experience serious health effects, and we should all avoid outdoor exertion.

The impact on our health is telling, with tens of thousands dying annually as a result of worsening pollution levels. When particles this small are inhaled, our respiratory natural defence system is not able to prevent them from lodging deep in our lungs. Some estimates put the impact of pollution on the country’s GDP at between 5% and 10%.

Adults are at risk from the increased pollution levels in our ambient environment, but our children are at even greater risk. Those living in urban and more polluted environments are becoming increasingly susceptible to respiratory conditions, such as asthma and sinus problems, as well as skin complaints, such as dermatitis and eczema.

As HCMC continues to develop at speed, every neighbourhood seems to have a construction site billowing out more dust, dirt and pollution into the local atmosphere. Asthma cases are rising at an alarming rate, and becoming increasingly difficult to treat. With continuous exposure to dangerous levels of pollution, asthma rates among children are becoming chronic, especially for those living near busy roads.

With the rapid urbanisation and economic development of what is already Vietnam’s largest city comes an increased need for its occupants to be able to move around it quickly and efficiently. The easiest and most popular means for the city’s citizens to manage their daily commute remains the motorbike: cheap, convenient and affordable to run.

With some putting the population of HCMC as high as 12 million, the number of bikes on the road grows daily. It is claimed the city has the highest number of motorcycles per capita in the world, with more than 7.5 million bikes officially registered, and many more operating in the grey areas of legality.

HCMC Environment Protection Department attributes most of the air pollution to transportation vehicles, claiming they contribute 85% of the carbon monoxide in the air. With the huge clouds of toxic fumes hanging daily over the city, the once blue sky now tends to be a permanent smog of grey.

Costly Problem

The annual damage caused by the growing pollution is estimated at more than US$6 million, according to the Ministry of Transport’s Health Department. The government recognises the urgent need to find solutions, and to produce a workable plan to get people off their motorbikes, but with the affordability and ease of riding bikes, it’s an uphill struggle encouraging locals to change their habits.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has been attempting to control vehicular pollution levels for some time, applying Euro 2 emission standards since 2005 at auto registration stations across the country. In 2011, a scheme was introduced to further control emissions from transportation in major cities, and this is credited with making a significant reduction in air pollution.

However, the scheme ran in to difficulties with many unable to pay the emission test fees, and many complaints that it was unfair and unacceptable to charge for them. There were also disagreements on deciding at what age a vehicle’s emission system should be tested, and what form of stamp should be displayed for traffic police inspection.

The truth of the matter is that except for initial registration with authorities, the use of motorbikes comes under little official control or scrutiny in Vietnam. Although there are publicity campaigns to inform the public how they can modify their usage to reduce pollution and protect their health, very few people are aware of the harm being done by their daily motorbike use.

Vietnam Pollution solutions electric bikeElectric Vehicles

So, with very real concerns being voiced about current pollution levels, and understandable fears for the future, what steps are being taken to find a solution to the pollution? One possible answer was presented at this year’s Vietnam Motor Show, with an obvious shift towards electric and hybrid vehicles.

With road conditions in Vietnam as they are, and steadily increasing fuel prices, the time would seem prime for a shift in transportation technology. As well as being more fuel efficient than conventional cars, hybrid models reduce CO2 emissions and are considerably better for the environment.

As the government is encouraging a move away from motorbikes with scheduled slashing of taxes on cars, the time may well be right for alternatively powered vehicles in Vietnam. Some of the region’s larger car manufacturers are already queueing up to bring their products to the local market. However, lack of infrastructure and unclear regulations, especially with taxation, are posing problems.

The Tesla Model X is already available in Vietnam and Mitsubishi are also eyeing the possibility of entering the potentially lucrative market. Japanese manufacture Toyota first brought their hybrid car, the Prius, to Vietnam in 2015 and general availability of the car is expected here shortly.

Currently the world’s best-selling hybrid car, the Prius combines a petrol engine with an electric motor, and allows the car to decide when to use either. At slower speeds, ideal for urban traffic in Vietnam’s cities, the electric motor is most active. When conditions call for greater acceleration, the petrol engine kicks in to provide the power needed.

Encouragingly, Mai Linh Taxi Group has jumped on board with plans to replace their current fleet of conventional cars with new electric models, according to Thanh Nien News. Signing a deal with Renault in 2016, their ambitious goal is to have a fleet of up to 20,000 electric cars operating in cities around the country by 2022.

Tax Breaks?

But if the Vietnamese are willing to make the transition from conventional to hybrid, there needs to be wholesale buy-in on an official level, and people are already asking why hybrid cars have not been granted special tax cuts, especially with the imminent cuts on import taxation. This is especially relevant, given that hybrid vehicles seem the right choice for economy, infrastructure and environment concerns.

Other countries in the region offer strong incentives to encourage and support those who make the transition to ‘green’ vehicles. Japan, for example, gives tax exemption on registration fees for all electric, fuel cell, hybrid and natural gas vehicles. Vietnam started making moves in the right direction with the 2008 Law on Special Consumption Tax, but so far has fully defined what is classified as a hybrid car.

As large manufacturers stand poised to enter what looks like a lucrative market, small scale entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunity to play their part in making the country a better, cleaner, quieter place to live. The team at Saigon Scooter Centre and BUZZ are one such group of pioneers, taking Tesla founder Elon Musk’s lead and producing vehicles that are desirable, useful, beautiful and practical.

Understanding that technologies for battery powered vehicles are developing rapidly, the team behind BUZZ have been experimenting and developing electric vehicles for many years, as much for their own enjoyment and interest as anything else. Believing the world now sits on the cusp of a power revolution, they are launching their first in a series of affordable, quality electric motorcycles.

“The future of the automotive business is electric without a doubt, and those pioneering the technology now are seeing positive interest from both investors seeking new markets and consumers in adopting environmentally friendly transportation modes.” Pat Joynt of Saigon Scooter Centre, the owners of BUZZ, explained.

One of the greatest barriers for consumers moving to alternatively powered vehicles, especially those powered by battery, is fear of being stranded as power runs out. As technology develops, super charging, wireless charging and even solar charging are making ‘range anxiety’ a thing of the past. The power packs used by BUZZ are lighter, yet hold more power than traditional lead acid or silicone batteries and are safer the lithium.

Their BUZZ1 model can be recharged from any home power outlet, and as with most electric vehicles there is the choice of a slow six-hour overnight charge, or a fast blast of just 12 minutes. With wireless options coming soon, the bikes can be topped up overnight just by parking outside the house.

Freedom of Design

One notable attribute of electric powered vehicles in the freedom of design often not applicable to conventional vehicles. There is no longer the need for a fuel tank, an engine, gear box or exhaust system, allowing room for creativity and aesthetics. Taking advantage of this freedom, the team at BUZZ have drawn on their passion, basing the designs of their bikes on Italian classics of yesteryear.

Although their current models are still prototypes, they show clearly how modern, cutting edge technologies can be morphed with classic, retro design to produce bikes with innate beauty and simplicity.

Combine this with clean, green technologies and you have a machine that is not only cool to ride, but has minimal negative impact on the environment. “There was and still is a massive gap in the market for a good looking EV scooter with classic looks but with a modern high-tech twist.” Joynt told me.

As it becomes uncomfortably apparent that our current choices for powering transportation are causing more harm than good, it’s equally apparent that we must make changes now that will create a better future. Pollution is an all too real problem, especially as the country pushes for rapid development.

With growing concerns for the environment, and our responsibility as a society to care for it, we must give due thought to the choices we make in relation to how we move around. Green technology gives us the option to make a change, and with uncertainty in the global economy it makes financial sense too.

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