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Driving the future: zero emissions buses, Australia and New Zealand

Adopting technologies to decarbonise transport with zero emission buses

Is the key to reaching a net-zero economy driving right by us? We led the inaugural Zero Emissions Bus (ZEB) forum with government and industry focusing on transforming our bus system to net-zero. Charting the issues and opportunities, we laid the foundations for a new nation-building project.

Project Summary

18,000 buses were converted to zero emissions between 2013-2018 in Shenzen

400kmThe distance most ZEBs can travel in a day

Leveraging existing technologies to act quickly

The longer we take to reduce our carbon emissions, the more we’ll be affected by global warming. So how do we reach net-zero quickly? One key is to focus on the right sectors with existing, proven technologies. Transport is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in Australia, and offers huge opportunities for decarbonisation in Australia and New Zealand.

“In Shenzhen, 18,000 buses were converted to zero emissions between 2013-2018,” says Joey Schaasberg, a Senior Transport Planner based in our Sydney office. “The technology is mature. It’s the transition that needs work.”

To help drive things along, we partnered with Transport for NSW and the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) to run the inaugural ZEB forum. Pre-informed by an in-depth discussion paper, 300 people from government and industry attended. With nine sessions over six weeks, discussions covered the vast range of associated factors, including: policy, planning, transition, technology, ownership and operations. 

What’s really exciting is that a coordinated, systems-led approach could deliver zero emissions for Australia and New Zealand by 2035,” says Mark Rowland, Director – Integrated Network Planning and Programs at Transport for NSW.

“And with a smart process that accounts for cradle-to-grave emissions, we could unlock economic benefits and next-generation jobs.”

Zero emissions bus recharging station Zero emissions bus recharging station
Transitioning to ZEBs presents significant nation-building opportunities.

Creating new markets from implementing zero-emission buses

Entirely new markets could be created from design and manufacturing, through to battery maintenance and energy resilience. As ZEBs are modular, we could build micro manufacturing plants in each of our cities, filling the gap left by automotive. And this know-how could then be transferred to other fleets like waste trucks and smaller passenger vehicles.

What makes the opportunity even more attractive is that most of the technology has already been tested. The UK, EU and China have started decarbonising bus fleets by setting aggressive national targets. Whilst it’s governments often pushing the agenda in these countries, Australia and New Zealand have seen strong industry-led initiatives, such as Volvo leading electric bus trials in Western Australia.

The forum also raised ideas for new social benefits that may redefine the ‘bus’ customer experience – from lower noise and pollution through to a smoother ride. What we are witnessing is a rare moment to reimagine our roads and streets where vehicle sizes are customised to match service requirements.

Zero emissions bus on highway Zero emissions bus on highway
Many people don’t realise that most ZEBs can travel 400km a day. That distance covers 85% of Sydney’s routes.

National strategy to adopt and coordinate decarbonisation of buses

But there are, of course, multiple complexities. There’s concern that acting on ‘hype’ could cut-off other approaches. For example, one person asked: “If the objective is to reduce CO2 emissions, wouldn’t we be better to get more people out of private cars and onto low emission diesel buses? We need to remain agnostic and consider what is the appropriate response(s) to achieving the desired policy outcome.” To this, another person responded: “It could become hard to justify the green credentials of an old diesel bus if someone can just as easily drive around in a modern electric car powered by renewable energy.”

Mark notes, “There is still a role to play in education about the existing technology. Many people don’t realise that most ZEBs can do 400km a day. That distance covers 85% of Sydney’s routes. And battery technology continues to improve. A ZEB may cost more upfront, but it’s soon recouped when you consider whole-of-life costs where ZEBs are cheaper to run and demand less maintenance, let alone the environmental and social benefits like reduced noise and pollution.”

Since the discussion paper was released, significant concrete action has been announced by many jurisdictions. New South Wales is converting its fleet of 8,000 buses to ZEBs by 2030. Queensland is transitioning to ZEBs by 2030. South Australia is transitioning to low or zero emissions vehicles over the next 10-15 years. Victoria is commencing a $20m trial. Auckland Transport is targeting a full ZEB fleet by 2040, with all buses to be procured as zero-emission vehicles from 2025. And Wellington is leading the charge, expecting to have around 110 ZEBs on the road (25% of the fleet) by mid-2023 and 100% by 2035.

In Australia, we also have the ability to develop advanced manufacturing and next-generation jobs. We already manufacture a lot of buses here. ” Joey Schaasberg Joey Schaasberg Senior Planner, Advisory Planning and Design

To ensure coordinated development of targets and standards (let’s not repeat the inefficient rail gauge situation), we need jurisdictions to share information and learnings. “I’d really like to see a point of coordination across the jurisdictions,” says Joey. By enabling certainty we are more likely to achieve system interoperability, building users’ trust and supporting system resilience.

Adopting a zero-emission bus ecosystem nation-wide requires strategy, coordination, and investment. The transition to ZEBs would not only reduce emissions, it could be a nation-building exercise under Infrastructure Australia’s nationally significant investment priority. Our actions must be system-wide, stimulating jobs, manufacturing and the economy.

Through this lens, decarbonisation and sustainable development go hand in hand. Asking the right questions now will get us to the right answers later.

Let’s drive into the future with a clear destination.