On a rainy afternoon in Shenzhen, the technological metropolis in southern China, buses silently transport passengers without emitting any CO2 or exhaust fumes. Shenzhen, with its nearly 18 million residents, made history by becoming the first major city in the world to fully transition its bus fleet to electric power in 2017.
China, as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, remains heavily reliant on coal. However, it is also the world’s leading investor in renewable energy.
This city, adjacent to Hong Kong and a hub for numerous startups, has also electrified the majority of its taxi fleet. Following Shenzhen’s lead, other Chinese cities have set the goal of achieving clean public transportation by 2025.
With just one month to go until COP28, China’s example demonstrates that a rapid shift to electric public transport is achievable, in stark contrast to the slower pace of transition in Western countries.
Buses contribute less to global warming than cars and trucks, but the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that buses have the potential to reduce emissions by 5% in a carbon-neutral scenario by 2050. Additionally, electric buses immediately improve air quality for city residents.
However, China remains an exception on the global stage. The country represents over 90% of the world’s electric buses and trucks, according to 2021 figures from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
“It didn’t happen overnight,” says Elliot Richards, an expert in electric vehicles. “It took many years of planning and extensive infrastructure work,” he adds.
Budget constraints and obstacles related to constructing necessary infrastructure in older cities, especially the substantial electrical capacity required for recharging batteries, limit the ability of the rest of the world to replicate the Chinese experience, notes Mr. Richards.
In a Shenzhen bus depot, driver Ou Zhenjian has noticed a “huge difference” since the transition to electric buses. He describes the electric buses as “really comfortable, easy to use, environmentally friendly, and silent, which is great for driving.” Mr. Ou, who has been in the profession for 18 years, is enthusiastic about the change.
“Today, we can say that our electric buses are as efficient as diesel buses,” says Ethan Ma, Deputy Director of the Shenzhen Bus Network, while acknowledging some challenges during the transition.
When considering the entire lifecycle, including manufacturing and battery production, electric buses emit 52% less carbon than diesel buses with equivalent performance, according to a World Bank study specifically focused on Shenzhen’s buses. This carbon footprint calculation accounts for the fact that half of Shenzhen’s electricity is generated from coal. In total, electric buses save 194,000 tons of CO2 annually in the city.
One satisfied passenger remarks, “Diesel buses used to emit a lot of exhaust fumes. When I walked on the street, I could smell it, and it made me feel uncomfortable. But not anymore.”
The pollution in Chinese cities and the public’s growing awareness of health risks have compelled authorities to expedite the transition to cleaner transportation, explains Tu Le of the specialized firm Sino Auto Insights.
In its study, the World Bank notes that success in this endeavor “depends not only on technology but also on political will.” China has made massive investments in this sector, enabling electric vehicle giants such as BYD, the world’s leading manufacturer in this niche, headquartered in Shenzhen, to emerge.