Fri | Jan 21, 2022

Editorial | A decarbonised transport system

Published:Wednesday | December 8, 2021 | 12:07 AM

Jamaica’s public transport sector, the Government says, will spearhead the island’s transition to electric vehicles as part of the country’s contribution to reducing the emission of the greenhouse gases that are making Earth intolerably hotter.

By 2030, Zahra Oliphant, a senior official in the energy and technology ministry, reminded recently, at least 12 per cent of the island’s transportation fleet should be running on electric power.

Instinctively, this newspaper supports any cut to greenhouse gases and understands that reducing those from vehicles must be a critical part of the mission to save the planet and keep it habitable for future generations.

Annually, road transportation causes an estimated six gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), or over 70 per cent of the emissions from the world’s transport sector, to be released into the atmosphere. We, however, have two significant concerns with Jamaica’s initiative. Or how we have gone about it so far.

One is that few people, but perhaps the technocrats who devised the plan, know anything about it, especially by whom and how it is intended to be implemented. Which is the basis of the second concern: a lack of information about the assumptions that underpin the target.

Put another way, it is our sense that this absolutely critical policy action to confront an existential crisis is being approached almost as business as usual; not quite in secret, but without the full engagement of the people who will be required to make it work and not, it seems, with a sense of urgency.

It is not obvious that the people who actually operate public transportation are being talked to about the policy. It is a business dominated primarily by small players, who control a single or few taxis or buses.

RECALIBRATE THE MESSAGE

The Government in the circumstances should recalibrate its message and restart its conversation. For that matter, it should begin anew how it talks about global warming and climate change, sensitising Jamaicans to the dangers the country faces, but also about economic opportunities that exist for people with the vision and the ideas to get ahead of the crisis.

With respect to the introduction of electric vehicles globally, the move makes sense if the rise in Earth’s temperature, compared to the pre-industrial period, is to be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Scientists warn that without drastic action now, on the current trajectory, benchmark temperature could be surpassed within a few decades, resulting in a further rise in sea levels and increasingly unpredictable weather, including more violent and frequent droughts. That, of course, would be bad for Jamaica.

Burning far less, and ultimately eliminating, hydrocarbons – which provide most of the energy that drives the world’s economy and powers the internal combustion engine – experts say, is a crucial part of the strategy.

It is in this context that Jamaica has talked about transitioning to electric vehicles, of which there is only a handful in the island. Yet, there is little clarity on how the Government plans to give life to its policy, despite the announcement in May of the establishment of the Electric Vehicle (EV) Council “to oversee a consultative process on the introduction of electromobility”.

Who might own and operate this fleet of EVs for public transport, and what is expected to be the economic environment within which this could happen, is not, we feel, being sufficiently and transparently discussed, despite Mr Daryl Vaz’s estimate that Jamaica could save up to two per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), apparently fuel purchases, by having between 12 per cent and 16 per cent run on electricity. Neither is there an indication of when this initiative will get off the ground.

For example, two years ago, the administration announced that the state-owned bus company, the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC), which serves the capital, would acquire 45 electric buses. It was the expected economic savings from the plan, more so than the green attributes of electric buses, that was being highlighted. However, the company hasn’t publicly spoken about the plan since then, although the battery power and range of electric buses, as well as their ability to manage difficult terrain – issues raised by this newspaper at the time – continue to improve.

2030 ISN’T FAR OFF

While buses are outsized polluters compared to cars, the great bulk of Jamaica’s public passenger commuters are moved by the more than 30,000 privately owned vehicles (mostly small cars) that are registered public passenger buses, route taxis and hackney carriages (many are not registered at all), rather than the fewer than 400 buses operated by the JUTC.

On average, a car with an internal combustion engine that leaves the road, and isn’t replaced with another that spouts CO2, means that around 4.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year won’t reach the atmosphere. And it is likely to be more if that car was being used as a public passenger transport.

The point is that this large and mostly informal segment of the transportation industry has to be brought fully into the conversation, unless the Government has framed what it feels to be a more efficient public transportation model for the future.

In the event, the Government has to be reminded, or to remind itself, that 2030 isn’t far off. It is not a long time to meet its deadline.

The bottom line: the Government has to establish a clear policy framework, including incentives to encourage risk-taking and innovation. There will have to be much of that, including in Jamaica, if the world is to beat the climate crisis.