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The Asia-Pacific region’s transport sector needs a big push towards decarbonization

A New Energy Bus in Beijing (Photo Credit: Yijia Cheng)

The recently concluded United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021, or COP26, in Glasgow, recognized that rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, are necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C. One of the target sectors for reducing emissions is the transport sector. Electric mobility shifts to renewable energy sources and the improvement of public transport are some of the key transport strategies listed in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of countries in the region. According to the International Transport Forum, traffic emissions will rise by 16 per cent by 2050 compared to 2015 - even if existing commitments to decarbonize transport are fully implemented. The impact of decarbonizing urban transport systems through electric mobility depends much on the source of electricity.

At present, electric vehicles (EVs) represent less than 5 per cent of the global vehicle fleet, and the transport sector is still very reliant on fossil fuels. A rapid uptake of electric vehicles is required to reduce vehicle emissions at the scale needed to meet climate goals. In this regard, several countries in the Asia-Pacific region are paving the way through proactive policies to transition to electric mobility:

China is implementing a scheme to promote electric mobility, with more than half a million electric buses now in operation. Three cities in China, namely Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Xi’an, operate public transport systems that are 100 per cent electric.

In India, the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing Scheme, or FAME II, was introduced to support, finance and mobilize the development of hybrid and electric vehicle market.

Nepal has abundant hydropower capacity and there is a current surplus of green energy which can be used for electric mobility. To promote easier adoption, both the public and private sectors have introduced measures. For example, Nepal has reduced import taxes for electric vehicles, while the private sector operates electric buses and minibuses in Kathmandu. The Government is procuring 200 electric buses for use in public transport in Kathmandu and is setting up 500 charging stations. There are also plans to expand EVs to other cities.

A solar-electric jeepney in Tacloban City, the Philippines (Photo Credit: Sheila Javier)
A solar-electric jeepney in Tacloban City, the Philippines (Photo Credit: Sheila Javier)

The Philippines is transforming traditional jeepneys to electric jeepneys as part of the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program.

The Republic of Korea is aiming to make Jeju Island carbon free by 2030. To promote Smart Transportation, the government has built electric vehicle infrastructure and provided subsidies to EV buyers until 2020, under the Republic of Korea’s Greater 2030 Initiative to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Thailand’s electric vehicle policy is aimed at accelerating electric vehicle production and use in the country. Under the plan, 30 per cent of all vehicles made in Thailand would be electric by 2030. A private company launched the Thai Smile Electric Bus in Bangkok in October 2021, while the Bangkok Metropolitan Transport Authority is planning to transform 2,000 of its buses to electric ones.

The way forward

While the electrification of the transport sector has begun, different stakeholders will have to work together to accelerate the transition.

Governments are in the driving seat in decarbonizing the transport sector. The literature suggests that carbon emissions from transport sector in cities can be substantially reduced through targeted land use planning, improved public transport systems and economic measures to encourage a mode shift to more energy efficient modes. Government agencies need to consider the implications of electric mobility, as well as other technological developments taking place in urban transport, as well as the need for new regulations. Some researchers argue that the targeted pledges in the NDCs are not backed by adequate analysis, so further cooperation with academia and the private sector is required.

Across the world, academia and researchers in universities are conducting important research on decarbonizing the transport sector. For example, ESCAP commissioned a modelling study to look at the impacts of different types of policies under the Avoid-Shift-Improve framework and found that Improve policies such as energy efficiency improvements and adoption of electric vehicles offered the most significant emission reduction potential. To draw transport and climate change studies closer together, transport planners, energy experts and climate scientists need to cooperate to develop more representative models which can identify innovative solutions towards a low-carbon future.

An EV charging station in Beijing (Photo Credit: Yijia Cheng)
An EV charging station in Beijing (Photo Credit: Yijia Cheng)

The private sector has an important role to play, especially because the transition to electric mobility requires high initial investment. Public-private partnerships have been an effective way to finance mass transit projects in Asian cities and may help cover the costs of building infrastructure for charging and battery replacement systems. Creative financing mechanisms are needed to replace fossil fuel vehicles. Support is also needed to electrify two and three wheelers, which constitute a major share of personal vehicles in South and South-East Asia. E-bikes and electric three wheelers have great potential in Bangladesh, China, India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Pakistan, in particular.  The private sector can lead in the development and dissemination of technologies to reduce CO2 emissions at a much larger scale.

Development and regional organizations and the international community can support all these stakeholders in their efforts. Some of the pledges made by the developing countries in their NDCs are conditional upon receiving international support. The international community can also foster opportunities for sharing knowledge and experiences. For example, governments recently committed to enhancing the sustainability of transport systems during the fourth Ministerial Conference on Transport held in December 2021 under the auspices of ESCAP, where they adopted the Ministerial Declaration on Sustainable Transport Development and the Regional Action Programme on Sustainable Transport Development in Asia and the Pacific (2022-2026) which includes low-carbon mobility and logistics as one of the priority themes for the region. The ESCAP 2021 Review of Developments in Transport in Asia and the Pacific also offers policy options for making passenger transport more sustainable, inclusive and resilient. ESCAP is also supporting four pilot countries (Georgia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nepal and Thailand) to develop policies and operational strategies on electric mobility and is planning to launch an “Electric Mobility Initiative for Asia and the Pacific.”

To achieve the commitments made in the NDCs it will be necessary to establish strong collaborations among transport stakeholders as well as other related sectors such as energy, manufacturing and infrastructure. Institutional arrangements that facilitate cooperation across sectors and ministries at the national and subnational levels can support the effective implementation of decarbonization policies at the ground-level. It is also important to track the impacts of projects and strategies on emission reductions. To achieve decarbonization of its transport sector, the Asia-Pacific region needs a big policy push and cooperation among stakeholders. This is no longer a “nice-to-have” but a necessity.

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Madan B. Regmi
Economic Affairs Officer
Junyi Zhang
Professor, Hiroshima University, Japan
Sonakshi Saluja
Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy, New Delhi, India
Transport +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]