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As the UK focuses on switching to electric cars by 2030, there’s a danger that buses will be left behind. The longer we keep today’s polluting diesel bus fleets on the road, the longer we neglect our health. The upcoming local elections and the UK’s long-awaited Transport Decarbonisation Plan present a prime opportunity to set a bold vision for zero-emission buses.
Diesel buses are major contributors to air pollution in cities. Lung- and heart-damaging nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel buses are disproportionately high. In London, buses account for roughly two per cent of vehicle kilometres driven but contribute to 15% NOx road transport emissions.
Road transport pollution often affects vulnerable communities the most. Just last month, an inquest in London recorded what is thought to be the world’s first case of air pollution listed as a direct cause of death. Nine-year old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debra, who had persistent asthma attacks in the last two years of her life, had grown up only 25 metres from one of London’s busiest roads.
Ditching diesel vehicles and speeding up the rollout of zero-emission fleets will prevent more lives from being lost or needlessly harmed. A recent study found that switching York’s current ‘Park & Ride’ buses to electric would, in the first year, cut total road transport NOx emissions by 7% and save £5 million of health costs. This saving would go a long way towards covering the £7 million cost of new vehicles and charging infrastructure.
It’s not just public health that would gain from cleaner buses. A faster switch is vital if we are to meet our climate goals. Transport overtook energy in 2016 to become the UK’s highest carbon-emitting sector. The UK government’s all-electric bus towns and cities competition is an encouraging start, but greater ambition is needed. If buses in the capital could be electrified sooner, by 2030, we would save an extra 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Many of us are aware that the pandemic has reduced travel on public transport, and it’s possible that – in the post-pandemic world – passenger behaviour may not return to ‘normal’.
However, the pandemic also presents an opportunity for cities to ‘build back better’, and to encourage people out of cars to form new patterns of public transport use. If city leaders and the UK Government had a stronger ambition for the switch from diesel to electric or hydrogen buses, it would stimulate many highly skilled manufacturing jobs and consolidate zero-emission vehicle manufacturing in the UK – capacity that could provide benefits for years to come, including in Scarborough, Falkirk, Leeds and Ballymena. Transport for London estimate that, over the long term, a £1 investment in electrification translates as a £2 investment into bus manufacturing across the UK.
Leaders in Glasgow, Newcastle, Coventry and Oxford – to name a few – have started the transition to zero-emission fleets, but polluted communities are lacking certainty on when diesel buses will be a thing of the past. London has committed to a zero-emission bus network in the next 15 years, but that is not fast enough given our climate and air pollution crises. Around 50 of the 790 bus routes in the capital operate either partially or entirely with zero-emission buses.
Cities such as Los Angeles, Copenhagen and Amsterdam have already set targets to remove diesel buses by 2030 or sooner. And these targets form the basis of national strategies, with 78% of Denmark’s and 66% of Netherlands’ urban buses already zero-emission. The equivalent figure for the UK is just 6.4%.
Figure 1: Share of urban busses that are zero-emission
Source: Transport & Environment, 2021
We can do better than that. Our city leaders must be bold and commit to entirely zero-emission bus fleets by the end of the decade. And, as well as investing in this strategy, the UK Government should make 2030 the target for ending sales of diesel buses. The lives saved and the benefits to our economy and social care system would be well worth the cost.
Oliver Lord is Head of Policy and Campaigns for Environmental Defense Fund Europe.
This blog is published as part of an occasional series by guest experts to provide a platform for new ideas in urban policy. While they do not always reflect our views, we consider them an important contribution to the debate.
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