A roadmap for the electrification of minibuses
A roadmap for the electrification of minibuses
Over the past decade, momentum has grown in cities across Africa to decarbonize the transport sector. But while the focus so far has been on the electrification of cars, motorbikes and public bus systems, most people in these cities rely on another way of getting around – minibuses.
Minibuses represent around 30% of all vehicles in circulation in most African cities and are often classified as an “informal” or “popular” mode of transport, due to their operation by self-employed workers rather than licensed providers. This distinction partly explains why some transport planners have prioritized replacing minibuses with other modes of transport, rather than electrifying them.
A recent report co-authored by Columbia Climate School’s Sustainable Urban Development Center challenges this approach by assessing the potential for minibus electrification in three African cities – Nairobi, Kenya; Cairo, Egypt; and Cape Town, South Africa. In each, researchers found that electric minibuses had the potential to deliver profound public health and environmental benefits – but, without targeted support, their successful implementation is far from guaranteed. .
The report is based on interviews with 21 practitioners working in the field of electric vehicles and was developed in partnership with researchers from the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Law, the Center for Transport Studies of the University of Cape Town and Transport for Cairo.
What’s at stake
Many African countries currently import the vast majority — as much as 95 percent — of their used cars and buses from the United States, Europe and Japan. In addition to safety issues related to the age and quality of these used vehicles, they run almost exclusively on fossil fuels, perpetuating the emission of greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Transport is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, and as African cities grow and industrialize, the continent’s emissions from transport are increasing to a rate of 7% per year.
“Transport is proving to be the hardest sector to decarbonise,” said Mohamed Hegazy, co-author of the report and co-founder of Transport for Cairo, “and this global imperative collides more with the development needs of the poorest “.
Minibuses burn diesel or gasoline, which contributes significantly to local air pollution in African cities. In Nairobi, the annual average concentration of fine particulate matter, the main air pollutant from diesel exhaust, has been recorded at more than 70% above the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. Fine particles are the major environmental risk factor for disease worldwide and is associated with respiratory disease, lung cancer and heart disease. It also has a disproportionate impact on the health of low- and middle-income people, many of whom suffer from longer periods of exposure as they have to walk or use minibuses to get from place to place.
The few electric vehicle models currently being promoted in African cities come from expensive foreign manufacturers like Tesla. “So the benefits of this technology – better, safer vehicles and cleaner air – go to a very exclusive class,” said Jackie Klopp, co-author of the report and co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development. “They are not evenly distributed.”
The trend of offloading older vehicles to Africa is also set to continue as wealthier countries accelerate their own clean energy transitions. If cities like Nairobi, Cairo and Cape Town are unable to modernize and electrify their transport systems, they could get locked in quickly decades of additional greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
The road ahead
Despite the potential benefits of cleaner public transport, Hegazy stressed that the electrification of minibuses will not happen without significant restructuring the transport sector. Minibus operators will need organizational capacity to access funding opportunities and to train drivers. Governments will need to establish adaptable regulatory environments so that electric minibuses can complement existing and larger public transport networks.
Then there is the need for public investment – “as much as possible”, as Klopp put it. The initial cost of an electric vehicle is currently too high for most minibus owners to justify the switch. Some African governments, such as Egypt and Kenya, have introduced tax incentives to encourage the purchase and manufacture of electric vehicles, but in the absence of additional financial and regulatory support, these incentives are falling short. overcome the short-term benefits of maintaining the status quo.
In addition, people whose work depends on used internal combustion vehicles, such as selling auto parts for maintenance and repair, should be retrained or provided with alternative economic opportunities.
“There’s a lot of political economy to manage to get things done,” Klopp said. “It takes a vision, as opposed to a reaction.”
Part of the actualization of the minibus electrification vision is the transition to a cleaner power grid – a feat more achievable for some cities than others. In Kenya, renewable energies represent more than 90 percent of the country’s electricity generation, so that when Nairobi switches to electric vehicles, there will be a considerable net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. By comparing, about 70 percent of South Africa’s energy mix came from coal-fired generation in 2019. Without a parallel effort to decarbonize the power grid, the climate benefits of transport electrification in a city like Cape Town will be undermined by the growing demand for electricity. dirty energy.
Fortunately, more and more African cities and countries are pursuing clean energy goals. “Using our rich datasets on popular transportation, we hope Cairo can advocate for better regulation,” Hegazy said, “including an actionable and achievable net zero.” [emissions] goal in the near future.
The report itself has also started to have an impact, including in Cairo, where the government is using its findings to inform several ongoing metropolitan transport plans and long-term electrification strategies.
“I think our report came at a time when there were rumors about the decarbonisation of the popular transport sector,” Klopp said, “but, really, it’s just the beginning.”