Image caption: Heavy-duty vehicles, like this public bus, are responsible for a large amount of climate pollution. Replacing buses that run on diesel with a zero-emissions fleet can yield large climate change mitigation benefits. Image credit: Jaggery / Zero Emissions bus, Bettws Lane, Newport
Script by: Megan Chan | Audio by: Jericho Rajninger
Zero-Emissions Public Transportation: Demand and Supply
Globally, transportation accounts for approximately one quarter of all CO2 emissions and grew by 3% in 2022. “Buses and other heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for a disproportionate share of the carbon and air pollution emissions from the transportation sector.” As a result, many governments are focusing policies and financial assistance on transitioning heavy-duty vehicles from diesel to zero-emissions vehicles. In the United States, the Federal Transit Administration received $7.5 billion through 2026 for battery-electric buses from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. As public awareness of climate change and the risks associated with climate pollution grow, demand for zero emissions public transportation options is also rising. “Nearly 5,500 new full-size zero-emission transit buses were on the road, on order or funded in the U.S. in 2022, a 66% increase over the previous year.”
This public demand requires bus operators to purchase zero-emissions buses and to build or acquire the needed infrastructure for those buses. For larger metropolitan areas, this can pose a significant financial obstacle. For example, the transit authority in Washington, DC, will “buy about 100 electric buses and refurbish a depot to charge and maintain them,” at a cost of $104 million. Thus, the public demand for zero emissions public transportation options translates to local government need for federal grants to respond to that demand. While in the US, much of this money will be coming from the federal government, Scotland’s transportation agency is taking a different approach.
Scotland’s Bus Decarbonisation Taskforce
Transport Scotland–the national transport agency for Scotland–has ambitious emissions reductions targets for vehicles of all categories, including heavy-duty vehicles, and hopes to achieve those targets through programs like the Mission Zero for Transport initiative, “a mission-led approach” that includes a pledge to “ensure that people and places benefit fairly from the shift to sustainable, zero emission mobility.”
Scotland’s Low Carbon Economy Directorate facilitates the development of solutions that leverage the expertise and experiences of participating communities. The Bus Decarbonisation Taskforce is a good example of this.
The taskforce developed rounds of bidding for financial and technical assistance from the government, as well as peer-to-peer learning and support opportunities. Initially, small- and medium-sized operators, while frequently interested in transitioning to zero-emissions vehicles, did not have the staffing capacity to develop the bid applications or to seek needed infrastructure improvements, leading to fewer small- and medium-sized operators being able to take advantage of the taskforce’s programs. As a result, the taskforce changed aspects of the second round of bidding to benefit small and medium-sized operators.
Benefits of a holistic approach to governance
In convening and collaborating so closely with the transportation sector, Transport Scotland learned more about the internal dynamics of the industry and how market share facilitates or hampers a transition to zero-emission vehicles.
The taskforce also incentivized bidders to collaborate with other sectors, such as bus depots operators that might open their spaces to other operators such as EV charging, potentially accelerating the spread of zero emissions adoption to sectors beyond buses.
Finally, the hope is that by developing the skills, abilities, and awareness that will strengthen the market for zero-emission public transportation, eventually the type of support offered by the government will no longer be needed.
Time and money
There are, of course, drawbacks to such an approach. Financing can be difficult for the private sector. While studies show that total operating costs of running zero emissions buses will be equal to or less than diesel engines, investment in new buses and infrastructure requires significant capital at the start. The transport sector often runs on very small margins, making such capital outlays a precarious option.
Additionally, the collaborative and iterative approach takes time, which was particularly true during the covid-19 pandemic. Transform Scotland, a national alliance for sustainable transport, released a report in September 2022 indicating that the Scottish government would not reach their ambitious target of removing the majority of diesel buses from public transport by the end of 2023. In fact, Transform Scotland noted that only about 16% of the fleet would be decarbonized by that time. In a BBC article, the author of the Transform Scotland report, Marie Ferdelman, noted that the group “observed no or only slow progress on the majority of sustainable transport commitments” and that “[t]he climate emergency and the cost of living crisis require urgent action … on delivering sustainable transport commitments.”
Having zero emissions public transportation is great, but is less effective if everyone is driving cars. Large scale technological shifts do not occur in a vacuum, so support of the technological shift must be accompanied by, for example, easier access to public transportation.
About our guest
Ed Thomson is the Head of Zero Emission Foresight and International Engagement in the Low Carbon Economy Directorate of Transport Scotland, a government agency. He joined Transport Scotland in 2018 as Head of Low Emission Vehicle Policy, leading a team that focuses on the options, challenges and opportunities posed by the transition to low carbon forms of transport, including the implications for the economy and workforce.
- Sierra Club, Electric Vehicles
- UN Sustainable Transport Conference, Fact Sheet (2021)
- IEA, Transport (2023)
- The US’ billion-dollar EV bus program can’t keep up with demand, Canary Media (2023)
- Utility Dive, Transit agencies’ zero-emission bus adoption increased in 2022 (2023)
- Mission Zero for Transport (Scotland)
- Bus Decarbonisation Taskforce (Scotland)
- Transportation Decarbonisation Alliance
- BBC, Scotland to miss target on ditching most diesel buses (2022)
- Transport Scotland, Stuck in Traffic: Meeting the Programme for Government Commitments on Sustainable Transport (2022)
Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: making zero-emission buses more accessible to transit riders. Ed Thomson leads planning and international engagement for the government agency Transport Scotland. He discussed his work to provide the Scottish people with access to a clean transit alternative to the automobile.
Mr. Thomson: We set up a bus decarbonization task force where we gathered the operators, finance, the energy sector–and said to them, look, government already plays quite a big role here. There’s a lot of subsidy going into the sector. We can provide a bit of extra funding to help with the transition. But you’ve got to tell us what it is that you need. You know, what can we share as a collective? Who holds interesting data? You know, what do we know about business models? What do we know about the way financing will change, and so on. And so we work very closely with them for that community to design a series of funding rounds to help stimulate the transition to zero emission vehicles and get some orders placed to kind of speed up that process.
Ethan: Thomson found that many Scottish transit operators lacked enough zero-emission vehicles to meet ridership demand. Also, smaller agencies lacked the capacity to manage the program, making it difficult to finance and operate zero-emission models. Thomson seeks to fix this.
Mr. Thomson: Looking forward to a subsequent round of funding, which we structured in a way that tries to incentivize and encourage kind of collaborations between different operators, and we’re hoping to see much more involvement from these smaller operators because we’ve given them that bit of a helping hand to kind of build their own capacity, build their networks, um, so that they can can get access to the kind of support and expertise they need to make this transition.
Ethan: To learn more about Transport Scotland’s work to promote zero-emission buses, visit climatebreak.org.