• Opinion
  • November 6, 2018
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

How a city in China became the world’s first to make all buses electric

Opinion: Shenzhen's fully electric transport system could be a model for other megacities

electric buses

This opinion piece was written by Jemilah Magnusson of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (IDTP) and Huang Benjun from ITDP China. ITDP works around the world to design and implement high quality transport systems and policy solutions that make cities more liveable, equitable, and sustainable. This piece also appears in our environmental policy newsfeed.


In 2017, the Chinese city of Shenzhen became the first in the world to run a fully electric transport system. The transformation took less than a decade, and is the first of 13 pilot cities that the central government has selected for demonstration and promotion of new energy vehicles.

Shenzhen, a city of 12 million which links Hong Kong to mainland China, replaced their entire diesel fleet with 16,359 electric buses, and the results have already been impressive.

Much has been made of China’s increasing contribution to global CO2 emissions, and for good reason. The 2018 Annual Report of China’s Motor Vehicle Environmental Management, published by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, shows China as the world’s largest motor vehicle market, in both production and sales, for nine consecutive years.

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However, there has been comparatively little attention paid to the major steps that the government is taking in attempt to mediate it, which is what they are attempting to do with the increasing development and use of new energy vehicles.

Shenzhen, China. Credit: ITDP China

Shenzhen’s e-buses, as well as the overall switch to new energy vehicles, have already reduced dependence on fossil fuels and lessened environmental pollution in the city. Gas consumption in public transport for the city has been reduced by a drastic 95%. Compared to operating mileage in 2016, Shenzhen’s electric buses are also consuming 72.9% less energy.

According to the Shenzhen Municipal Transportation Commission, the resulting energy savings amount to 366,000 tons of coal saved annually, substituted by 345,000 tons of alternative fuel.

There are also major reductions in CO2 emissions. On average per year, electric buses emit 67 kg of CO2 per 100 km, compared to diesel vehicles which emit 130 kg — a reduction of some 48%. 2017 data show a total reduction of CO2 emissions of 1.353 million tons. Annual emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, non-methane hydrocarbons and particulate matter was reduced by 432 tons.

It’s clear that China sees new energy vehicles as a way to continue its pace of rapid development while reducing emissions. However, like all big changes, it has its critics.

Some have been using terms such as “zero emissions” to describe new energy vehicles, which is not entirely accurate. Many have pointed out that new energy vehicles simply transfer pollution from roads to power plants. The central government has been increasing its uses of renewable energy, but there has not been comparable progress in decarbonising the grid. In 2016, coal-generated power still accounted for 72% of all power sources in China.

Shenzhen could be a model for rapidly growing megacities overwhelmed by transport emissions

For electrification to have any real effect on global emissions, governments must focus more on long-term de-carbonisation of the grid. Despite its rapid pace of development, China is still mainly based on coal-generated electricity.

How much electrification still matters in spite of that is a complex question, and the answer is changing as electrification technology improves, and the sources of energy move away from oil and coal. Still, based on the average standard and composition of the Chinese power grid, electrification alone has decreased CO2 emissions 15-20% compared to diesel vehicles.

Few governments have the resources, or the will, to replace their entire transit fleets and add the infrastructure necessary to go fully electric on this scale. Yet, China’s progress in this area shows the advantages that big, sweeping investments in technology can have on transport emissions.

Shenzhen has the potential to serve as a model for rapidly growing megacities finding themselves overwhelmed by transport emissions as their cities grow. — Jemilah Magnusson & Huang Benjun

(Main picture credit: ITDP China)

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