Pakistan’s electric buses enough to reduce air pollution?

A Peoples’ Bus Service bus is parked at its terminal in Karachi. — Twitter/pbsbrtsindh

For Karachi-based Raja Kamran, who swaps his motorcycle commute for the very first one in Pakistan electric bus transport saved money — and helped him avoid some of the city’s pollution.

A small fleet of all-electric buses began operating in the country’s financial capital in January as part of a government initiative to reduce rising air pollution from vehicles and industry, power plants and brickyards, and the incineration of solid waste.

“Not only has the electric bus service reduced my weekly travel expenses, but it has also helped (with) my … health issues,” the 50-year-old journalist said on the phone, noting that he suffered from back pain while riding his motorcycle to work.

However, Kamran said there weren’t enough e-buses – only 10 of the initial fleet of 50 are currently operating – and that he sometimes had to wait 45 minutes to catch one of them.

Urban Air Pollution is a major and long-standing problem across Pakistan, with the country ranking third out of 118 nations globally for the worst air quality in 2021, according to IQAir, a Swiss pollution technology company.

Bad air is a leading cause of death in the South Asian nation of about 224 million people, which led to an estimated 236,000 premature deaths in 2019, according to the latest Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study.

Amid growing concerns about the number of vehicles on the road – there were 30.7 million in Pakistan in 2020 compared to 9.6 million in 2011 – cities such as Peshawar and Karachi have announced plans to promote greener transport.

Karachi’s 50 electric buses can each carry at least 70 passengers and travel 240 km (149 miles) on a single charge.

The fleet, which cost US$15 million, was funded through a public-private partnership, with a transport company buying the buses and operating them for eight years before the Sindh provincial government takes ownership.

According to Abdul Haleem Shaikh, secretary of Sindh Transport and Urban Transport Department, the government is currently in talks with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to secure a loan of about $30 million to buy another 100 buses.

“We want to provide people with zero-emission, comfortable and luxurious buses and trained staff to discourage them from using their smoking cars and motorcycles,” he said.

However, environmental and city experts have questioned whether the small number of electric buses will have a significant impact and have called for a much broader and more meaningful traffic overhaul.

System change necessary?

Successive climate disasters – from heat waves to wildfires – have ravaged Pakistan in recent years, and the country is still recovering unprecedented flooding in 2022.

However, air pollution remains one of the country’s top environmental concerns, with at least 40% of Pakistan’s polluted air coming from vehicles, the country’s climate change ministry said.

In November 2019, the Pakistani government set a target of introducing half a million electric motorcycles and rickshaws and more than 100,000 electric cars, buses and trucks to the transport system within five years. The current total on the streets is unknown.

Pakistan has a longer-term goal of ensuring that a third of all cars and trucks and half of all motorcycles and buses sold are electric by 2030, and has broadly pledged to step up its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the years leading up to that date .

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, the provincial government is taking old buses off the road and replacing them with hybrid diesel-electric models as part of a new public transport system.

And in Karachi, in addition to the 50 new electric buses, the government has set up a network of 250 vehicles that run on biomethane from water buffalo dung.

But Karachi’s bus initiatives — both newer and older — have been criticized by some analysts, who say they’re not doing enough to reduce pollution.

A better focus would have been to reduce the overall number of cars and motorcycles on the streets and raise public awareness of the effects of air pollution, said Muhammad Toheed, deputy director of the Institute of Business Administration’s (IBA) Karachi Urban Lab. .

“A commuter who uses his own smoking vehicle or bicycle to get to work does not understand the cruelty he is causing to the environment,” he said.

Yasir Husain of Darya Lab, a consultancy that deals with environmental issues, said at least 1,500 electric buses are needed instead of 150 to reduce emissions in Karachi.

“The government should also provide soft loans through easy financing to encourage the use of e-bikes and e-rickshaws,” said Husain, who is also a founder of the Green Pakistan Coalition, an advocacy group.

Shaikh, the transport minister, conceded that the 150 new electric buses alone would not do much to reduce air pollution, but pointed to the biomethane vehicles and also highlighted the 29 traditional bus routes that cover the city.

He said Pakistan’s current economic crisis and the financial strain of the 2022 floods would not hinder the rollout of more electric buses as that funding would come from international lenders.

Bhevish Kumar, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, said he had taken the new electric buses to attend business meetings but was skeptical the limited fleet would really do much to clean Karachi’s suffocating air.

“There is a need to expand e-bus services and make more inroads into the city’s transit system to make sure people aren’t…burning fuel in their vehicles,” he said.

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