Decarbonizing bus fleets: Global overview of targets for phasing out combustion engine vehicles

We’ve been tracking the progress of national and subnational governments in committing to end the sale of new passenger cars and vans powered by internal combustion engines for a while now. Most recently, we also summarized the state of such commitments for medium and heavy trucks. Now it’s time to highlight the governments that have officially committed to have 100% of new bus sales be zero-emission, that is, powered entirely by batteries or fuel cells.

As shown in the map below in green, seven countries—Austria, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, New Zealand, and the Netherlands—and the U.S. state of California have committed to having 100% of their new bus procurements be zero-emission technologies in the years to come. Five of these— California, Cape Verde, Denmark, New Zealand, and the Netherlands—have also set targets for their on-road bus fleets to be 100% zero-emission by a certain date. Another example of a fleet-wide target is Costa Rica. Although it has no target for new procurements, Costa Rica aims to have 100% of its bus fleet be 100% zero-emission by 2050.

Figure 1. National and subnational governments with official targets toward 100% zero-emission buses.

Denmark, New Zealand, and the Netherlands are the most progressive in terms of time frame, aiming for 100% new zero-emission bus procurements by 2025. Denmark’s target is limited to new urban buses, and it is outlined in the government’s Climate and Air Plan from 2018. The government of New Zealand’s announcement came in January 2021, and it will only allow the purchase of zero-emission public transport buses from 2025 onward. The government of the Netherlands intends that all new buses used in public transport must emit zero harmful exhaust gases by 2025; in other words, they must be battery electric buses or hydrogen fuel cell electric buses. The target is part of the Netherlands’ Mission Zero plan, published 2019.

The U.S. state of California has set 2029 as its target year. The government established statewide targets that require public transit agencies to gradually increase their share of new zero-emission bus purchases and reach 100% in 2029. This is part of the state’s Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) regulation adopted by the California Air Resources Board in December 2018. The ICT regulation applies to all transit agencies that own, operate, or lease buses with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 14,000 lbs (6,350 kg). For large transit companies, 25% of their new bus purchases need to be zero-emission in 2023. That share increases to 50% in 2026 and reaches 100% in 2029. For small transit companies, phased in targets start at 25% in 2026 and reach 100% in 2029. From 2021 onward, transit agencies are required to report each year on the technical specifications of each bus operated; failure to do so might result in penalties and fines.

With the explicit goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2040, Austria states in its 2030 Mobility Master Plan that all new registrations of buses must be zero-emission buses by 2032. A 100% ambition level for 2035 has been established by the African nation of Cape Verde and the two South American countries highlighted in the map, Chile and Colombia. Cape Verde has also set interim targets for the acquisition of new electric buses for 2025 and 2030, as outlined in the government’s Electric Mobility Policy Charter from 2019. Chile states in its National Electric Mobility Strategy from October 2021 that urban public transport, including buses, must be zero-emission by 2035. Colombia wants cities with bus rapid transit systems to transfer to 100% electric or zero-emission vehicles for new purchases or replacements by 2035, and this is stipulated in a national law adopted in 2019.

In addition to these official commitments, two memoranda of understanding (MoU) are concerned with phasing out conventional combustion engine buses. One signed by governors from 15 U.S. states and the mayor of Washington, D.C. aims to have all sales of new medium- and heavy-duty vehicles in their respective jurisdictions be zero-emission by no later than 2050. This was discussed in a bit more detail in our previous blog on truck commitments. Additionally, a global MoU was launched at COP26 to accelerate the zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles market by setting a 100% zero-emission target including new bus sales by 2040. Signatories of the global MoU are Austria, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Wales.

Further, while some governments have not yet set 100% targets for buses, they have adopted important strategies. The government of Pakistan is aiming to have 90% of new bus sales be electric by 2040, phased in from 50% in 2030; this was announced in 2019 as part of the National Electric Vehicle Policy. Norway’s goal is to have 75% of new long-distance coach purchases be zero-emission vehicles by 2030, as stated in the government’s 2021 National Transport Plan 2022–2033. For urban buses, the Norwegian plan aims to have 100% of new purchases be either zero-emission or with dedicated biogas powertrains by 2025. As using biogas would dilute the movement toward zero-emission bus fleets, Norway is not displayed in the map.

At the supranational level, the European Union adopted in 2019 a revision of the Clean Vehicles Directive, which sets minimum targets for the public procurement of clean vehicles for EU Member States. These targets range across countries from 24% to 45% in 2025, and from 33% and 65% in 2030, depending on population and gross domestic product. The 2030 target for 15 out of 27 EU Member States is at least 60%. While zero-emission buses self-evidently qualify as “clean” vehicles, other fossil-fuel-powered technologies such as plug-in hybrids, natural gas, and liquefied petroleum gas, would also qualify as “clean.” Nevertheless, the directive mandates that half of these targets have to be achieved by procuring battery electric or fuel cell electric buses. The United Kingdom was still part of the European Union when the Clean Vehicles Directive was adopted, but the Brexit negotiations were well underway at the time and the directive was not transposed into UK national law. Nonetheless, the UK government carried out a public consultation in April 2021 with the objective of setting a phase-out date for the sale of new non-zero-emission buses, and further consultation is expected.

Beyond the zero-emission procurement goals detailed above, almost all of the governments have also set fleet targets for buses. Denmark’s target is that by 2030, all buses in cities must be zero-emission. In the Netherlands, the objective is that all public bus transport has to be 100% zero-emission by 2030. New Zealand aims to decarbonize its entire public transport bus fleet by 2035. As part of the ICT regulation mentioned above, California sets a target for public transit agencies to reach a full fleet transition to zero-emission buses by 2040. Finally, Cape Verde and Costa Rica aim to have 100% of their buses be zero-emission by 2050.

What’s also encouraging is that the electrification of bus fleets is well underway. In China, the world’s leader in electric bus deployment, 80,000 zero-emission buses were sold in 2020, and that was around 90% of the country’s new city bus market. In the European Union, zero-emission buses accounted for 6% of new registrations in 2020, up from 4% in 2019. The Netherlands was far ahead in first place within the European Union with 81% of new city buses registered being zero emission in 2020. In the United States and Canada, the share of zero-emission buses has been on the rise since 2017, and these accounted for around 4% of the bus market in 2020; most of the sales were in California.

Still, looking at the map of national and subnational targets, the distribution is rather sparse so far. Nonetheless, it’s clear that some governments are forging ahead. Even though none of the countries have set binding regulation for new purchases so far, these commitments to fully decarbonize bus fleets in future years are an important signal to other regions and nations. Decarbonizing bus fleets is an important step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving local air quality. A few countries specifically focus on their urban bus fleets, and these include Denmark, Chile, and Colombia. As cities play an important role in this context, we will look at leading cities moving toward zero-emission bus fleets in an upcoming blog.

Table 1. National and subnational government targets for 100% zero-emission buses (through November 2021).

National or subnational government Target vehicle type: heavy-duty buses and/or coaches Target year for 100% zero-emission new bus procurements/sales Target year for 100% zero-emission bus fleet Source (publication year)
Denmark Buses in cities 2025 2030 Climate and Air Plan (2018)
The Netherlands Public transport buses 2025 2030 Mission Zero (2019)
New Zealand Public transport buses 2025 2035 Government announcement (2021)
California (United States) Public transit agency buses 2029 2040 Innovative Clean Transit (ICT) regulation (2018)
Austria Buses 2032 Not specified Mobility Master Plan (2021)
Cape Verde Buses and other buses 2035 2050 Electric Mobility Policy Charter (2019)
Chile Public transport buses 2035 Not specified National Electromobility Strategy (2021)
Colombia Bus rapid transit 2035 Not specified National law on electromobility (2019)
Costa Rica Buses Not specified 2050 Decarbonization Plan (2019)
California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia Medium- and heavy- duty vehicles 2050 Not specified Memorandum of Understanding (2020)
Austria, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Wales Medium- and heavy- duty vehicles 2040 Not specified Memorandum of Understanding (2021)