There are two distinctive types of electric buses making their way along Nanjing Xi Lu, one of Shanghai's busiest roads.

The first is a fleet of blue trolleybuses that serve bus route number 20, a line set up by a British-run transport company in 1928. They use poles on their roofs to receive electricity from wires overhead and have kept the route running in this way for nearly a century.

But while the historic trolleybuses are a reminder of Europe's past technological innovation, the new buses swooshing alongside them are symbols of China's contemporary net-zero ambition.  

These sleek and modern electric buses, powered by lithium batteries not wires, were rolled out in Shanghai in their thousands beginning in 2014. Compared to the once ubiquitous diesel-fuelled buses, which made loud 'vroom-vroom' engine sounds and belched out black smoke from their tailpipes, the e-buses dominating Shanghai's streets today are quiet, smoke-free and stylish to look at. They also drive smoothly, particularly when they start and stop.

These sleek buses are now ubiquitous across much of China, but their status as a green transport icon was not always assured. As they shuttle back and forth along their bustling daily routes, these vehicles are having a profound influence on not just China's rapid EV transition, but the world's. 

Electric buses have a long history in China, dating back to the 1920s – but China's new generation of electric buses is world-leading in the 21st century. Image: Getty Images. 

An uphill start

The country's decision to spur the manufacturing and use of e-buses was primarily a strategy for industrial growth, then a part of its efforts to curb air pollution. It was only after the government's 2020 pledge to become carbon neutral before 2060 that promoting electric vehicles has become an important part of its climate goals. Yet it appears to be working. 

China now boasts the world's largest market for e-buses, making up more than 95% of global stock


The most recent data available shows that China in 2018 was still the second largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the global transport sector, responsible for 11%, and behind only the United States, which accounted for 21%. However, in order to help reduce transport emissions around the world, the International Energy Agency has called for policies to encourage public transport and electric vehicles – and China's e-bus roll out is helping achieve both. 

After about two decades of government support, China now boasts the world's largest market for e-buses, making up more than 95% of global stock. At the end of 2022, China's Ministry of Transport announced that more than three-quarters (77% or 542,600) of all urban buses in the country were "new energy vehicles", a term used by the Chinese government to include pure electric, plug-in hybrids, and fuel cell vehicles powered by alternative fuels such as hydrogen and methanol. In 2022, about 84% of the new energy bus fleet was pure electric. 

The speed of this transition was remarkable. In 2015, 78% of Chinese urban buses still used diesel or gas, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). The NGO now estimates that if China follows through on its stated decarbonisation policies, its road transport emissions will peak before 2030.

China is also home to some of the world's biggest electric bus manufacturers, such as Yutong, which has been raking up orders across China, Europe, and Latin America.

"China has really been at the forefront of success in conversion of all vehicles to electric vehicles, especially buses," says Heather Thompson, chief executive officer of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a non-profit focusing on sustainable transport solutions. "The rest of the world is trying to do the same, but I think China is really out ahead."

So how did China make this world-leading leap? 

A new track

At the time of China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, the international automotive industry was dominated by European, US and Japanese brands. These companies had spent decades perfecting internal combustion engine technology. To compete, Beijing decided to find a new track for its auto industry: making cars that did not use conventional engines.

That same year, the central government launched the so-called 863 plan for EV research and development. There were numerous practical challenges, however, in the way of mass electrification. Not many manufacturers were making new energy vehicles, buyers were few and there was a lack of charging infrastructure in existence. The answer? Buses. 

The regular nature of the bus route lent itself to electrification, with the opportunity to charge vehicles overnight in a planned spot. Image: Getty Images. 

"The Chinese government adopted a very smart strategy," says Liu Daizong, ITDP's East Asia director. "They realised quite early on that they should drive [the EV industry] through electric buses," he notes, since their public service status meant Beijing "could have a strong hand on their electrification".

There were also technological reasons to make buses the spearhead of an electric vehicle revolution. "Bus routes were fixed. This means when an electric bus finished a round, it could return to the depot to recharge," explains Xue Lulu, a mobility manager at the World Resources Institute (WRI) China. The typical daily mileage of a Chinese bus ­– 200km – was a realistic range for battery makers to meet.

Extending the line

China first showed its global EV ambitions at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Athletes, guests and spectators were transported around the stadiums by the Ministry of Technology's fleet of 595 'green' vehicles.

The following year, the country began its large-scale rollout of new energy buses, with the Ten Cities and Thousand Vehicles programme. Over three years, the programme aimed to provide 10 cities with financial subsidies to promote 1,000 public-sector new energy vehicles in each, annually. Its goal was to have 10% new energy vehicles in the country by the end of 2012.

Strong policy support from both central and regional governments "gave manufacturers confidence in setting up production lines and stepping up research efforts", says Liu.

By the end of 2012, the programme had reached 25 cities and 27,432 new energy vehicles had been rolled out, reported China Auto News, a newspaper affiliated with state-owned People's Daily Group.

A technological innovation fund was also established by the central government to spur research and development into energy-saving and new energy automotive industry, according to the publication. By December 2013, the fund had awarded a total of 1.6bn yuan (€210m) to 25 projects from 24 companies. 

Together, these strong and consistent government signals encouraged Chinese manufacturers to expand their EV production capacity, bring down costs and improve their technologies. One such company was Build Your Dream, better known as BYD. The Shenzhen-based firm, the world's largest EV maker in 2022, ballooned its business a decade before by supplying electric buses and taxis for China's EV pilot cities.

Making it personal

Progress wasn't straightforward. The Ten Cities, A Thousand Vehicles programme even missed its original three-year, 30,000-vehicle target, with not enough cities showing interest. But a second factor also began pushing cities to embrace new energy buses: air pollution.

"Back then, most buses used diesel, which was a main source of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions," says Xue, referring to the air pollution that smothered Beijing and other Chinese cities in the early 2010s. Yet in 2013, a new plan from central government cited tackling air pollution as one of the reasons for rolling out EVs.

This addition proved to be critical: it not only connected EV uptake with people's health, it also indirectly tied the e-bus campaign to local officials' political performance, as the central government would soon hand air-quality targets to all provinces.

In Lvliang, a small city in the coal heartland of Shanxi Province, fleets of e-buses started to appear on the streets about this time, according to Wang Xiaojun, who grew up in the city and now lives in the Philippines, where he runs an NGO called People of Asia for Climate Solutions.

"In the '80s and '90s, there were no buses in Lvliang, only vehicles transporting coal. Most people walked everywhere," he says. As Lvliang started to grow, the local government set up bus routes that used oil-fuelled fleets, but by 2013, many of these had been replaced by electric ones, "most likely because of the pressure [the local government] faced over air pollution". 

The years 2013 and 2014 proved to be important for China's EV push. For the first time, the central government made EV purchase subsidies available to individual consumers, not just the public sector, opening the floodgate to private ownership. Additionally, it offered discounted electricity tariffs to bus operators to make sure the cost of running electric buses would be "significantly lower than" that of their oil or gas-powered equivalents.

The new economic push, plus local government's determination to battle air pollution, generated great enthusiasm for e-buses. By the end of 2015, the number of EV pilot cities rocketed from 25 to 88. In the same year, the central government set a target of 200,000 new energy buses on the road by 2020 and announced a plan to phase out its subsidies for fossil-fuel-powered buses. 

Intense air pollution across many Chinese cities added momentum to the switch to electric vehicles. Image: Getty Images. 

To further stimulate the market, many cities devised various local policies on top of national incentives. For example, Shenzhen, a southern city with a population of more than 17 million, encouraged government agencies to work with private companies to create a full range of renting mechanisms for bus operators.

The battery accounts for 40-50% of an e-bus's total cost, so such rental programmes were key, says ITDP's Liu. Under this method, a bus operator could rent a battery from a manufacturer through a third-party financial organisation, then pay the rent from the money it saved from not having to use more expensive diesel or gas.

Different cities' bus operators also designed different charging strategies. "Buses in Shenzhen had bigger batteries, so they normally charged overnight," says Xue, of WRI China. Between 2016 and 2020, Shanghai, another electric bus hub, subsidised the electricity e-buses used – regardless of the hours of the day – to give them more flexibility in charging.

Generous financial support did lead to problems. In 2016, an EV subsidy fraud shook China, with some bus operators found to have exaggerated the number of e-buses they had purchased. So that same year Beijing shifted its EV subsidy rules so bus operators could only receive financial support when a bus's mileage reached 30,000km.

And finally, one year later, the government announced the so-called dual-credit policy. This allowed new energy vehicle makers to rake up credits which they could sell for cash to those needing to offset 'negative credits' generated from making conventional cars.

As a result of these policies, by 2017 Shenzhen had become the first city globally to replace all of its buses to battery-powered vehicles – with a 2021 study showing that the move had "significantly reduced" greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in the city. 

Congestion ahead

Growth of China's electric buses now seemed unstoppable. The market was expanding so quickly that in 2018 the government updated its 2020 target for new energy buses from 200,000 to 400,000 and decided it was time to gradually phase out their subsidies. 

There is one charging pillar for every 2.5 of China's 13.1 million new energy vehicles 


And it wasn't only China's buses that had benefitted.China's e-bus campaign helped create a big and stable market for its wider EV industry, brought down the costs and created economies of scale. In 2009, the year the e-bus campaign was rolled out, the total number of new energy vehicles sold stood at 2,300; by 2022, it was 6.9 millionanalysis by Huang Zheng, a researcher at the Institute for Internet Industry at Tsinghua University, suggests.

By 2022, the country had also built the world's largest EV charging network, with 1.8 million public charging stations – or two-thirds of the global total – and 3.4 million private equivalents. This means that on average, there is one charging pillar for every 2.5 of China's 13.1 million new energy vehicles.

So far, however, the Chinese cities with the most successful e-bus rollouts – such as Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai – all have moderate weather and are relatively flat. To take its e-bus campaign to the next level, China faces challenges.

For one thing, it is difficult to bring fleets to cities such as Hong Kong, which – like London – have double-deckers. These two-storeyed vehicles are "very hard" to electrify, as Xue puts it, because they are heavier, use more energy, and so need bigger batteries, reducing the number of passengers they can carry. One of the few electric double-deck models is produced jointly by BYD and ADL, a UK bus manufacturer.

Cold weather is a problem, too, as it can make a battery's charging time longer and its range shorter. The reason China has not achieved 100% electrification for its buses is its northern regions, which have harsh winters, says Xue.

A further challenge is that the current e-bus manufacturing process can be polluting and emissions-intensive, says Wang; from the mining of raw materials for batteries, such as nickel and lithium, to the production of the steel. The latter is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise due to the use of coking coal, which not only provides high heat but also acts as an ingredient to enable chemical reactions.

To make e-buses truly 'green', they should also be charged with renewable power, says Wang. But last year coal power still accounted for 58.4% of China's energy mix, according to the China Electricity Council, a trade body. 

The global picture

Globally, however, China is now in a league of its own in uptake of e-buses. By 2018, about 421,000 of the world's 425,000 electric buses were located in China; Europe had about 2,250 and the US owned about 300. According to Alicia García Herrero, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Brussel-based think tank, Europe has generally been "lagging" in providing "bulky" fiscal support for e-buses.

But earlier this year, the European Commission announced a zero-emission target for all new city buses by 2030. And some countries are increasing their overall funding for the transition.

In 2020, the European Commission approved Germany's plan to double its aid for e-buses to €650m, then again in 2021 to €1.25bn. And the UK, which last year had the largest electric bus fleet in Europe with 2,226 pure electric and hybrid buses, has announced another €153m to help bus operators buy zero-emissions fleets.

While it may be theoretically easy for other countries to kick-start their e-bus rollouts with government subsidies, as China did, a fast deployment also relies on manufacturing capacity and infrastructure, says Ran Ze, a director at the China Representative Office of Environmental Defense Fund, an international environmental advocacy non-profit. "This is something other countries, especially developing nations, will find it hard to copy."

Countries have thus responded to China's manufacturing lead in divergent ways. "While the US has opted for a more competitive angle by fostering its own e-bus production, regions like Latin America are more open to trade with China due to a more friendly trading setup through [China's] Belt and Road initiative," explains Liu.

In order to avoid direct competition from Chinese manufacturers, the US has come up with a "school-bus strategy", says Liu. The Chinese don't make the iconic yellow vehicles, so this could ignite American e-bus manufacturing and create a local industry chain, he suggests. Backed by the US Environmental Protection Agency's $5bn Clean School Bus Programme, the national effort has so far committed to providing 5,982 buses.

In contrast, many Latin American cities, such as the Colombian capital of Bogota and the Chilean capital of Santiago, are greening their traditional bus sectors with the help of Chinese manufacturers, who are the largest providers to the region.

In 2020, Chile became the country that had the most Chinese e-buses outside of China, and this year Santiago's public transport operator announced it has ordered 1,022 e-buses from Beijing-based Foton Motor, the biggest overseas deal the firm had received.

Chinese manufacturers are likely to receive a lot more orders from Chile and its neighbours in this decade. According to latest research by the global C40 Cities network, the number of electric buses in 32 Latin American cities is expected to increase by more than seven times by 2030, representing an investment opportunity of more than €10.5bn.

Thompson, of ITDP, says that a lot of successful Latin American cities have also taken a leaf out of the Chinese book on financing, with electricity companies contributing to the cost, "knowing that ultimately the buses are going to plug into their electricity grid", she says. 

China's remarkably rapid introduction of electric buses has put it front and centre of the global EV market. Image: Getty Images. 

In Europe, however, Chinese e-bus makers are likely to face increasing headwinds. EU policymakers have responded to China's dominance in EV manufacturing with an anti-subsidy investigation, after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the "global market is flooded with cheaper electric vehicles".

"Amid the global tide to build more resilient supply chains, many are trying to reduce their dependency on China," says García Herrero.

The fast lane to net zero

In June 2023, BloombergNEF forecast half of the world's buses to be entirely battery-powered by 2032, a decade ahead of cars. And by 2026, 36% and 24% of municipal bus sales in Europe and the US, respectively, are expected to be EVs as they begin to catch up with China, BloombergNEF said in a report. But in Thompson's view, the world still has a long way to go electrifying buses, especially in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

"In places like Africa, there are many buses on the streets, but they are not part of the formal public transportation system," she notes. "They are small minibuses that, maybe, were first being used in markets in Europe or Japan, and then exported to Africa."

To meet the global climate goals set by the Paris Agreement, simply switching the world's existing bus fleets might not be enough. According to ITDP, the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from urban passenger transport globally must stay below the equivalent of 66 gigatonnes CO2 between 2020 and 2050 for the world to meet the 1.5C temperature goal. This emissions limit will only be possible when the world not only adopts electric buses, but goes through a broader shift away from private transport.

"We can't just focus on [replacing] the buses that exist, we need to actually get many, many more buses on the streets," says Thompson. She and her team estimate that the world would need about 10 million more buses through 2030, and 46 million more buses cumulatively through 2050, to make public transport good enough to have a shot at achieving the Paris Agreement. And all those buses will need to be electric.

In China therefore, even though EVs are being sold faster than ever, its central government has instructed cities to encourage public transport use, as well as walking and riding bikes.

Outside residential blocks in the megacity Shanghai, colourful posters showing an e-bus, a bike and a subway train remind passers-by to commute in a low-carbon manner. The main bus operator of another city, Heze, home to nearly nine million people, has also reportedly offered to customise bus routes to suit citizens' needs, such as bypassing schools.

In Wang's home town, meanwhile, which has a little more than three million residents, the local government has gone one step further and made all bus rides free. All citizens need to do is to swipe an app, with no charge, to get onto the bus. "My aunt loves taking buses now," says Wang. "She says it is so convenient."

Wang now believes that even though the manufacturing e-buses can be polluting, making them more accessible is the right way forward – for China and the world.

"Only then can [the government] take the next step – to make the buses' electricity sources, batteries and steel greener in the future," he says. 

Author: This article was written by Xiaoying You and first appeared on the BBC website Future Planet.