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Sustainable transport in sub-Saharan Africa

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

On 5 July, the Climate Parliament hosted a parliamentary roundtable on the role of sustainable transport in the global energy transition with Stefanie Sohm, a consultant and facilitator on the intersection of transport, sustainable development and climate policy. This meeting was convened in collaboration with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and with the support of the European Commission (DG INTPA). Parliamentarians from Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe joined our discussion.

The transport sector is responsible for 27% of worldwide CO2 emissions. Its decarbonization is a key part of the fight against climate change. In Africa, more than on any other continent, the transport sector accounts for a great share of the overall economic activity. Decarbonisation of transport is not only important in terms of climate mitigation, it is also an economic opportunity to spend less on expensive polluting fuels. In many rural areas of the developing world, low electricity demand makes it unprofitable for governments or private developers to extend the national grids or build minigrid facilities. The electrification of transport represents a good opportunity to increase that demand, and to provide an incentive for public and private actors to invest in rural electrification while driving down the cost of energy. Electric vehicles (EVs) powered by batteries can also provide an opportunity to create added value around the productive use of electricity. In many cases, vehicle batteries are removable and can be used for other purposes such as powering home appliances or water pumps.

Stefanie exposed on the challenges of the decarbonisation of individual transport in Africa. Many African countries have weak regulations on the import of second-hand vehicles and, as a result, almost 40% of all ageing light utility vehicles exported worldwide are shipped to the continent. In some countries, the vehicle fleet is overloaded with worn-out polluting vehicles, sometimes over 15 or 20 years old, which also represent a risk for road safety. Clean modern low-carbon vehicles, which are more expensive, are usually not competitive against these older vehicles. Stefanie advised our MPs to work on regulations to limit the age of vehicles that can enter the country, while actively pushing the oldest vehicles out of the market.

According to our expert, African countries could benefit greatly from focusing on two alternative priorities. The first one is working on the electrification of 2- and 3-wheelers. These vehicles do not require a massive infrastructure deployment for charging, nor regulations to solve the issue of land use and access. Indeed, private operators can offer a system of battery swapping where the user can just change its flat battery for a charged one, usually at a gas station or on the company’s own private grounds. This system does not require a public rollout of charging infrastructure and can enable a quick expansion of electric mobility. And since regular and electric 2- and 3-wheelers cost almost the same, powering them with electricity is also very often much more profitable for users than paying for gasoline. The second priority, particularly relevant for Africa, would be to promote a cleaner public transport system. Stefanie Sohm acknowledged that electric buses are significantly more expensive than regular ones, but investing in them now can be cost-effective in the long term, by leapfrogging to the next stage instead of purchasing vehicles which might become obsolete within a few years. Finally, to attract more users into using public transport and have a significant impact on the reduction of emissions from individual cars, Stefanie advised the MPs to work together with city councils to increase the safety and reliability of public transport. As African cities are developing and evolving fast, MPs can also promote urban planning allowing their constituents to move in a more sustainable way, with safe bicycle lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians.

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