For many cities in Latin America, transport is synonymous with traffic jams and smog. The sector is the largest and fastest growing source of carbon emissions in the region. Around 50,000 people die prematurely every year due to respiratory illnesses.
Nevertheless, the region has a window of opportunity for electrification and is already taking its first steps. Cities from Argentina to Colombia have started to swap diesel buses for electric vehicles, bought largely from Chinese manufacturers.
In an interview with Diálogo Chino, Lisa Viscidi, director of the Energy, Climate Change & Extractive Industries Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, said the region has made significant changes so far but more has to be done, warning that the coronavirus pandemic could stall progress.
Diálogo Chino [DC]: Why is the transformation of transport so necessary in Latin America?
Lisa Viscidi [LV]: The most urgent issue is air pollution. It’s something that affects everyone. It’s tangible. People can feel it. It causes thousands of deaths in the region every year and people feel that is the most urgent issue. In terms of climate change, it’s a major source of emissions in the region. Electric transportation is the most viable way to address that. It can have economic benefits, especially for vehicles that are in circulation most of the day, such as buses and taxis. And it can help countries to reduce expenses on fuel. The vehicle costs are more upfront but it can bring benefits later on, especially for countries that depend on oil
DC: How relevant is the transportation sector in terms of emissions?
LV: Transportation is one of the biggest growing sources of emissions. In other regions, electricity is a much bigger source of emissions as countries depend on coal. But in Latin America electricity as a whole is very low carbon due to dependence on renewables, especially hydro. The region depends mainly on oil for transportation, with the exception of some biofuels in Brazil. Motorisation is growing at a fast rate. More people are buying vehicles faster.
DC: What differentiates Latin America from other regions in terms of the possibilities to improve its transportation sector?
LV: The transport sector in general has many things to tackle. It is a big source of emissions and pollution but also leads to congestion and traffic. We need to electrify vehicles, the high use ones especially, and make improvements for people to walk and bike. Bike-sharing can help, as well as restricted areas for cars not to enter. The system of vehicle circulation restriction based on the license plate hasn’t been successful. The transport issue is a severe problem that has to be deal with.
DC: What progress on electrification have you observed in the region?
LV: We’ve started to see major progress in a handful of countries. They were starting from a low point with only a few electric vehicles. Some have seen more in public and others in private transportation. We saw big growth in Santiago, Chile, in public electric buses, the biggest outside of China, but not that much on electric cars. Colombia has been growing every year in the rate of electric vehicle use, with Bogotá introducing electric buses to Transmilenio, for example. But given the size of cities in the region, the number of electric vehicles is still small.