Latin America pursues electromobility

The energy transition isn’t just about electricity – transportation is also key. But many countries are too focused on renewable energy, and ignore public transport and electromobility. Emilio Godoy takes a broad look at what Latin American countries are doing to drive down emissions.

close up of car exhaust pipe with gray cloud

Emissions from transit are bad for the earth and bad for people – time for a transportation revolution. (Photo by Ruben de Rijcke, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Despite recent advancements towards the deployment of electric buses, Latin America moves too slowly to a massive electric public transportation system. And this despite of e-mobility reducing greenhouse gases, abate air pollution, and modernizing aging public transportation infrasture.

In recent years, cities like Bogotá, Mexico City, Montevideo and Santiago de Chile have all introduced electric taxis that will over time replace conventional ones to modernise that fleet and therefore to reduce pollution. The initial idea is to introduce electric taxis that run alongside conventional ones and removes diesel taxis from the streets. In parallel, some of these cities are also introducing so-called e-buses, as part of an effort to improve public transport.

So far, electric taxis make up less than 1% of the total fleet in those cities. Taxi drivers who opt for the e-change receive tax exemptions, access to financing and subsidized or free charging. This initial pilot phase is intended to provide analysis for their future feasibility.

In 2015, the Brazilian cities Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro and Salvado; Bogotá, Quito; Caracas; Buenos Aires and Mexico City committed themselves to substitute a total of 40.000 buses for cleaner ones by 2020, although it is not yet clear whether the new vehicles will be electric or just not diesel.

Since 2006, Uruguay has operated a collective transport trust to promote low-carbon transportation, and since 2016, the government has included e-buses under this program. The fund consists of governmental subsidies and totals around USD25 million.

Bogota began in 2015 to have e-buses on its streets, whereas Chile has been introducing electric taxis and buses since May 2016 in the centre of its capital, Santiago. In both cases, the authorities are doing the switch to modernize the public transport and to reduce CO2 emissions.

Instead of buying relatively old technology, Latin American countries could invest that money in electric buses, which may have better benefits than the conventional technology. This would also free these countries from industry pressure to buy old technology being abandoned in more developed countries.

Electrifying the transport sector is important in terms of reducing carbon emissions as it is responsible for around 30% of greenhouse gases in Latin America. It is projected that under these various policy measures, 35% of the 115,000 public buses in Latin America won’t run on diesel anymore, resulting in the reduction of 435,000 tons of greenhouse gases by 2020.

Last year, UN Environment launched the Electric Mobility in Latin America initiative, in an effort to bolster electromobility further in the region. This program aims to provide policy assistance to push this trend forward by attracting sufficient financing and using the most up-to-date technology. The biggest challenge to push e-mobility in public transportation is the financing issue for buses, taxis and infrastructure.

Development cooperation can help in this regard and should not focus simply on updating a fossil-based transportation sector, but should help emerging economies to fundamentally transform the sector to one based on electricity. Mexico City, for example, is designing a green corridor with financing from the German development agency GIZ and the C40 network. This corridor runs along a 23 km long road that runs from East to South and will be replaced completely by electric buses transporting around 200,000 people per day. Moreover, the Mexican government is seriously going after its strategy of increasing the number of electric charging stations around the country.

Latin America is in an ideal position to make a leap forward to have a cleaner, better and more efficient transportation. The continent has already set in motion a modernization process, renewable energy generation is growing, and Latin American societies are more aware of the health risks associated with a fossil-fuel heavy transport sector. The biggest challenge, however, lies in devoting adequate financing for this endeavor.



Emilio Godoy is a Mexico-based journalist who covers the environment, human rights and sustainable development. He has been a journalist since 1996 and has written for various media outlets in Mexico, Central America, Spain and Belgium. His articles have been cited in academic journals. In 2012, he won the Journalistic Prize on Green Economy and Sustainable Development.

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