Electric buses could be the key to Europe’s clean transport future 

The European Union has been at the forefront of the push towards cleaner mobility, notably through its advocacy of emissions cuts at global level, and more recently with its internal measures to make all transport modes less polluting. Perhaps the single most effective measure that Europe could take is to promote electric buses.

The impact of electric buses is already being felt around the world. By the end of this year, a cumulative 270.000 barrels a day of diesel demand will have been displaced by electric buses, most of it in China, according to a report. That is more than three times the displacement by all the world’s passenger electric vehicles.

Collectively, buses and electric vehicles account for about 3% of oil demand growth since 2011, and 0.3% of current global consumption. But buses matter for simple mathematical reasons: because of their size and constant use. For every 1.000 electric buses on the road, 500 barrels of diesel are displaced each day. By comparison, 1.000 battery electric vehicles remove just 15 barrels of oil demand.

China’s astonishing revolution

Nearly half of all city buses on the road worldwide are expected be electric within seven years. The total number of electric buses in service is forecast to more than triple, from 386.000 in 2017 to about 1.2 million in 2025, equal to about 47% of the worldwide city bus fleet.

China’s revolution in electric vehicles has been particularly astonishing. It has about 99% of all electric buses worldwide. Every five weeks, Chinese cities add 9.500 zero-emissions buses, the equivalent of London’s entire working fleet.

Other cities are moving in the same direction. Paris, London, Mexico City and Los Angeles are among 40 cities that have committed to only buying zero emissions transport by 2025.

However, there are difficulties in meeting the demand. While the Paris transport operator, RATP, last year launched a bid for 1.000 electric buses, the largest of its kind in Europe, a local Parisian transportation company actually put back in service about 100 old diesel-propelled buses because there were not enough electric-powered buses available.

This is where Europe might actually be the weak link in the emissions chain. While the number of battery-electric buses ordered in Europe more than doubled in 2017 compared to 2016, it still only reached 1.031 vehicles, around 9% market share of new registrations. In 2017, 1.6% of the European fleet was electric, 0.5% of the US fleet, and 17% of the Chinese fleet.

Lack of policy

NGO Transport & Environment says there are two major barriers to electric buses in Europe. The first is the higher upfront cost, up to twice the price of a diesel bus. The second is the lack of strong policy support to stimulate both supply and demand – and incite economies of scale to push down the cost of zero-emission buses.

The EU is doing its bit through regulation. On March 27, the European Parliament approved plans to slash emissions from cars and vans by 2030, by 37.5% for new cars and by 31% for new vans. It followed a similar deal in February to curb carbon pollution from trucks or heavy-duty vehicles by 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels.

Of course, these EU decisions matter a lot. But the biggest area of change is likely to be in the transition to electric buses. And if Europe is to switch as forcefully as China, it needs public authorities to work harder in rolling these buses out.