Latin Amer­ica Be­gins to Dis­cover Elec­tric Mobility

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With 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in ur­ban ar­eas and a ve­hi­cle fleet that is grow­ing at the fastest rate in the world, Latin Amer­ica has the con­di­tions to be­gin the tran­si­tion to elec­tric mobility – but pub­lic poli­cies are not, at least for now, up to the task.

That is the as­sess­ment of UN En­vi­ron­ment, ac­cord­ing to a con­fer­ence that two of its of­fi­cials gave on May 29 in Ar­gentina’s lower house of Congress, in Buenos Aires.

The shift to­wards elec­tric mobility, how­ever, will come in­ex­orably in a few years, and in Latin Amer­ica it will be­gin with pub­lic pas­sen­ger trans­port, said the United Na­tions agency’s re­gional cli­mate change co­or­di­na­tor, Gus­tavo Máñez, who used two pho­tographs of New York’s Fifth Av­enue to il­lus­trate his pre­dic­tion.

The first photo, from 1900, showed horse-drawn car­riages. The sec­ond was taken only 13 years later and only cars were vis­i­ble.

“As at other times in his­tory, this time the tran­si­tion will hap­pen very quickly. I am see­ing all over the world that car man­u­fac­tur­ers are look­ing to join this wave of elec­tric mobility be­cause they know that, if not, they are go­ing to be left out of the mar­ket,” said Máñez.

Pro­jec­tions in­di­cate that Latin Amer­ica could, over the next 25 years, see its car fleet triple, to more than 200 mil­lion ve­hi­cles by 2050, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency (IEA).

This growth, if the tran­si­tion to sus­tain­able mobility does not pick up speed, will se­ri­ously jeop­ar­dise com­pli­ance with the in­tended na­tion­ally de­ter­mined con­tri­bu­tions adopted un­der the global Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change, ac­cord­ing to Máñez.

The rea­son is that the trans­port sec­tor is re­spon­si­ble for nearly 20 per­cent of the re­gion’s green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions.

In this re­gard, the of­fi­cial praised the new pres­i­dent of Costa Rica, Car­los Al­varado, who called for the elim­i­na­tion of fos­sil fuel use and for the de­car­bon­i­sa­tion of the econ­omy. Máñez also high­lighted that “Chile, Colom­bia and Mex­ico are work­ing to tax trans­port for its car­bon emis­sions.

“This is an ex­am­ple of pub­lic poli­cies aimed at gen­er­at­ing de­mand for elec­tric ve­hi­cles,” said Máñez, while an­other pos­i­tive case is that of Uruguay, one of the coun­tries in the re­gion that has made the most progress in elec­tric mobility, stim­u­lat­ing it with tax ben­e­fits.

“But the re­gion still needs to do a great deal of

work de­vel­op­ing in­cen­tives for elec­tric mobility and re­mov­ing sub­si­dies for fos­sil fu­els,” he added.

In this re­spect, he asked Latin Amer­ica to look to the ex­am­ple of Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, where elec­tric ve­hi­cles al­ready play an im­por­tant role, thanks to the fact that their driv­ers en­joy park­ing priv­i­leges or use the lanes for pub­lic trans­port, in ad­di­tion to other sus­tained mea­sures.

There are very dis­parate re­al­i­ties in the re­gion.

Thus, while elec­tric ve­hi­cles have been sold in Brazil for years, the coun­try host­ing the con­fer­ence is lag­ging far be­hind and only be­gan sell­ing one model this year.

In fact, the meet­ing was led by Ar­gen­tine law­maker Juan Car­los Vil­la­longa, of the gov­ern­ing al­liance Cam­biemos and au­thor of a bill that pro­motes the in­stal­la­tion of elec­tric ve­hi­cle charg­ing sta­tions, which is cur­rently not on the leg­isla­tive agenda.

“The first ob­jec­tive is to gen­er­ate a de­bate in so­ci­ety about sus­tain­able mobility,” said Vil­la­longa, who ac­knowl­edged that Ar­gentina is lag­ging be­hind other coun­tries in the re­gion in the tran­si­tion to clean en­ergy.

Ar­gentina only started a cou­ple of years ago de­vel­op­ing non-con­ven­tional re­new­able en­er­gies, which in the coun­try’s elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion mix are still neg­li­gi­ble.

As for elec­tric mobility, the govern­ment of the city of Buenos Aires hopes to put eight ex­per­i­men­tal buses into op­er­a­tion by the end of the year, as a pi­lot plan, in a fleet of 13,000 buses.

Com­bat­ing cli­mate change is not the only rea­son why elec­tric mobility should be en­cour­aged.

“Health is an­other pow­er­ful rea­son, be­cause in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines gen­er­ate a lot of air pol­lu­tion. In Ar­gentina alone, al­most 15,000 peo­ple die pre­ma­turely each year due to poor air qual­ity,” said José Dallo, head of the UN En­vi­ron­ment’s Of­fice for the South­ern Cone, based in Mon­te­v­ideo.

“There is also the is­sue of en­ergy se­cu­rity, as elec­tric­ity prices are more sta­ble than the price of oil,” he added.

In 2016, UN En­vi­ron­ment pre­sented an 84-page re­port en­ti­tled “Elec­tric Mobility. Op­por­tu­ni­ties for Latin Amer­ica,” which noted the change would mean a re­duc­tion of 1.4 gi­ga­tons in car­bon diox­ide emis­sions, re­spon­si­ble for 80 per­cent of GHG emis­sions, and sav­ings of 85 bil­lion dol­lars in fu­els un­til 2050.

The re­port ac­knowl­edges that among the re­gion’s ob­sta­cles are fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies “and a lower

elec­tric­ity sup­ply than in de­vel­oped coun­tries, where the boom in elec­tric mobility has been con­cen­trated so far.”

It also notes that Latin Amer­ica is the re­gion with the high­est use of buses per per­son in the world, and that pub­lic trans­port “has a strate­gic po­ten­tial to spear­head elec­tric mobility.”

Along these lines, the ex­pe­ri­ence of Chile through the Consortium Elec­tric Mobility, a mixed ini­tia­tive with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Min­istry of Trans­port and sci­en­tific in­sti­tu­tions from Chile and Fin­land, was also shared dur­ing the con­fer­ence in Buenos Aires.

En­gi­neer Gianni López, for­mer direc­tor of the govern­ment’s Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Com­mis­sion and a mem­ber of the Mario Molina Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre, said that “in Chile the de­ci­sion has al­ready been taken to move pub­lic trans­port to­wards elec­tric mobility.”

He ex­plained that there will be 120 elec­tric buses op­er­at­ing next year in San­ti­ago and that the goal is 1,500 by 2025 – more than 25 per­cent of a to­tal fleet of nearly 7,000 pub­lic trans­porta­tion units.

“There are many aspects that make it eas­ier to start with pub­lic buses than pri­vate cars,” Lopez said.

“On the one hand, buses run many hours a day so the re­turn on in­vest­ment is much faster; on the other hand, since they have fixed routes, it is eas­ier to in­stall recharg­ing sys­tems; and au­ton­omy is not a prob­lem be­cause you know ex­actly how far they are go­ing to travel each day,” he said.

One ex­am­ple of this is Uruguay, where elec­tric taxis have been op­er­at­ing since 2014, and since 2016 a pri­vate mass tran­sit com­pany has a reg­u­lar ser­vice with elec­tric buses. In ad­di­tion, a 400-km “green route,” with re­fu­el­ing sta­tions ev­ery 60 km, was in­au­gu­rated last De­cem­ber.

As for the cost of elec­tric ve­hi­cles, Máñez as­sured that China, which leads the pro­duc­tion and sale of elec­tric ve­hi­cles, is now close to reach­ing cost par­ity with con­ven­tional ve­hi­cles.

In this sense, the of­fi­cial also spoke of the need for Latin Amer­ica to de­velop a tech­nol­ogy that is cur­rently un­der­de­vel­oped.

He high­lighted the case of Ar­gentina, which is not only a pro­ducer of con­ven­tional ve­hi­cles, but in the north of the coun­try has world-renowned re­serves of lithium, a min­eral used in bat­ter­ies for elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

The ques­tion is that lithium is ex­ported as a pri­mary prod­uct be­cause this South Amer­i­can coun­try has not de­vel­oped the tech­nol­ogy to man­u­fac­ture and as­sem­ble the bat­ter­ies lo­cally.

An elec­tric bus parked on a down­town street in Mon­te­v­ideo. Credit: Inés Acosta / IPS

The podium at the con­fer­ence in Ar­gentina’s lower house of Congress, where rep­re­sen­ta­tives of UN En­vi­ron­ment as­sured that pub­lic trans­port, which in Latin Amer­ica has the high­est rate of use in the world per capita, will lead the tran­si­tion to elec­tric mobility. Credit: Daniel Gut­man / IPS

Bo­livia's Salar De Uyuni — the world's largest salt flat at 5,000 square miles. It holds the world's largest de­posit of lithium, used in bat­ter­ies for elec­tric ve­hi­cles.

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