Paving the way for zero-emission buses in cities

Heavy-duty vehicles help move people and goods around cities: they’re the trucks delivering supplies to local retailers; the public transport buses carrying people around the city; the coaches connecting towns and cities.  

Although heavy-duty vehicles in an urban environment are low in number compared to other means of transport, their CO2 emissions are disproportionately high. Drastically reducing diesel-powered, heavy-duty vehicles is therefore imperative to meeting the EU’s climate neutrality goals and creating healthier cities. 

Earlier this year, the European Commission took steps in this direction with a proposal to revise the Regulation on CO2 emission standards for heavy-duty vehicles. 

If approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, the new rules would considerably boost the decarbonisation of the heavy-duty sector 

Eurocities members welcome the EU Commission’s initiative, which matches municipalities’ long-standing sustainable mobility efforts and commitment to the EU’s Green Deal goals.

To ensure that cities’ priorities and concerns inform upcoming discussions, a Eurocities policy statement provides key suggestions to EU policymakers. The paper focusses on the decarbonisation of urban buses, the most common form of public transport vehicle.

The ‘Beyond Exhaust – Paving the Way for Zero-Emission Buses’ policy position recommends that the European Parliament and Council of the EU:  

  • Support the proposed objective of 100% zero-emission bus sales by 2030, while allowing room for flexibility to help local authorities during the transition

The phase-out of combustion engine buses by 2030 comes at a time when public authorities have already started to decarbonise their public transport fleet through a mix of technological options, including natural gases. Battery-electric and hydrogen buses will be expected to play an important role in this process. However, to lessen the impact of this transition on local transport authorities’ budget, Eurocities recommends policymakers allow some cities to also use buses fuelled by natural gas or bioGNV in the medium term, ahead of achieving complete net-zero goals. 

José Luis Martínez-Almeida Navasqüés, the Mayor of Madrid, gets on an e-bus in the Spanish capital
  • Remove long-distance vehicles from the category of urban buses subject to the 100% zero-emission target in 2030; place them under the coach category, which delays the net-zero goals to 2035

The types of vehicles falling under the zero-emission mandate include buses for inter-urban trips, for which zero-emission technologies are not as developed as for purely urban buses. Eurocities therefore recommends moving inter-urban buses under the coach category, which should be subject to a zero-emission target by 2035. 

  • Require the European Commission to consider the share of low-emission urban buses already in operation in the public transport fleet of cities when defining the maximum share of urban buses excluded from the 100% zero-emission target

In the Commission’s revision proposal, EU member states can exclude a limited number of vehicles from the zero-emission urban buses target in consideration of social, economic, and other reasons. Eurocities recommends to add to that list the share of low-emission vehicles already part of cities’ bus fleet when assessing requests for exemption to the zero-emission targets.

Ease cities’ financial burden 

A recent Eurocities survey showed that 20% of the city leaders polled said that the current inflation may force them to reduce or postpone investments in public transport. The findings are the result of the first annual Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey published in June 2023, which was based on answers from 92 mayors from 28 Eurocities countries.

The large-scale roll-out of a new zero-emission bus fleet in cities will also require local governments to make significant investments, for example to upgrade grid capacity, establish grid connections, renovate bus depots to allow for overnight charging, and to increase the amount of charging infrastructure.

To help ease cities’ financial burden, Eurocities recommends extending the duration of instruments such as the EU’s Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Facility, a €1.5 billion financial tool that supports the transition to green mobility.

  • Remove the obstacles related to the cost of the approval of retrofitted vehicles or retrofitting kits, which are blocking the development of retrofitting practices in Europe

A study published by the French national agency for energy and the environment (ADEME) highlights that urban buses present an interesting potential for retrofitting. Yet, despite its many benefits in terms of cost reduction and contribution to the circular economy, the technical upgrading of buses is still not seen as a widespread alternative, mainly because of the costs associated with it. Eurocities therefore recommends that EU lawmakers remove the regulatory hurdles that prevent the development of retrofitting practices. 

  • Support a strong European manufacturing base of zero-emission buses

The supply of zero-emission buses can be challenging in many aspects. Delivery time for zero-emission buses is still too long and around a third of electric buses in Europe were manufactured outside the continent, mostly in China, which increases EU dependency on third countries for key decarbonisation technology. Eurocities members support the Commission’s proposal to promote the manufacturing of vehicles in Europe. This step may require a strong collaboration between national or European administrations and local authorities.

In addition, Eurocities recommends adopting the Net Zero Industry Act recently proposed by the European Commission to make the manufacturing of batteries or green hydrogen used for zero-emission buses more efficient in Europe.  

Read the full policy statement: Beyond Exhaust – Paving the Way for Zero-Emission Buses

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Peter Staelens Head of Mobility
Thomas Lymes Policy Advisor, Mobility & Air Quality
Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer
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