As global temperatures continue to rise, there is mounting pressure on the transport industry to be more environmentally friendly

Worldwide, the effects of global warming are being felt with increased temperatures and unusual or extreme weather conditions. Countries are committing to cleaner energy to slow down this process. This includes greener alternatives for the transport industry – a big contributor to harmful emissions.

Some cities, particularly in Europe, have proposed banning internal-combustion engines (ICEs) in the next decade to encourage the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) and alternative or cleaner fuels. South Africa, too, has committed to reducing harmful emissions.

Electric alternatives

Many vehicle manufacturers have launched EVs ranging from passenger cars to heavy commercial trucks. The market is growing at a rapid rate as energy analyst at Green Cape, Khanyiselo Kumalo, points out.

“The EV market is growing exponentially. There is a lot hype and innovation being pumped into the industry, which is estimated at US$ 118 billion (R1,7 trillion), with passenger vehicles still dominating,” she says.

Challenges facing EVs

By far the biggest hinderance to the adoption of EVs is the cost of lithium batteries, which make them more expensive than ICE vehicles. Kumalo notes: “One of the factors that can derail the market is battery price, which is not declining as expected. As a result, it will take that much longer for EVs to be as affordable as petrol or diesel-powered vehicles.”

Even if lithium batteries were more affordable, South Africa faces expensive import duties. Tim Abbott, CEO of BMW South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, explains: “It is impossible to grow the EV market in South Africa when these vehicles are taxed as luxury items.

“Clean mobility should not to be a luxury, with a 25-percent tariff on an electric car when an internal-combustion car attracts 18 percent. It makes our future harder to manage.”

Countries, like China, that have policies in place to support the adoption of electric-powered cars, have seen a significant uptake in the technology.

In addition to reducing import tax, vehicle manufacturers are encouraging government to introduce incentives to offset the expensive costs of investing in this new technology, including charging infrastructure.

Opportunities in EVs

Aside from the environmental benefits of investing in electric-powered vehicles, South Africa can benefit from the technology used to create lithium batteries. Kumalo explains: “There are five key raw materials that are important in manufacturing the lithium batteries used in EVs. South Africa is home to two of those materials.”

Presently, South Africa exports the raw mineral and then imports the reworked product at a higher price. There is an opportunity to refine the material locally.

A shift to EVs might also assist the South African vehicle manufacturing industry. Kumalo points out that the automotive industry risks losing business as more countries ban the sale of new ICE vehicles.

“Where will these ICE vehicles go if the markets to which we are exporting no longer accept them?” she asks. “We need to make sure that local passenger vehicle manufacturers can keep up with global market trends and changes.”

Abbott agrees that South Africa should be a leader in the EV market: “This country’s extraordinary renewable-energy endowment, its abundant mineral resources and its highly regarded engineers make it a country that ought to be at the heart of the electric-vehicle revolution.”

South Africa not ready for EVs

Despite all the opportunities, South Africa is not ready for the electric revolution. “We have a long journey ahead of us,” Abbott says. “We can’t hide from the realities of limited infrastructure, slow uptake of EV offerings, and the geographic, cultural and political roadblocks the mobility revolution faces in South Africa.”

Instead, EVs are expected to be slowly phased into the South African transport mix. Kumalo concludes: “People are not ready to go fully electric. They still want the convenience offered by a petrol or diesel-powered engine.”

Other alternatives

Rather than focusing all of its energy on introducing electric alternatives, the transport industry can invest in cleaner fuels and engines. Kevin Baardt, head of strategic projects at the South African Petroleum Industry Association, says: “Fuel quality is critical to achieving acceptable environmental performance of ICEs.”

He points out that emissions from vehicles running on Euro-6 engines are cleaner than the ambient air. However, sulphur content in the fuel currently produced in South Africa is too high to be used in a Euro-6 engine.

Local refineries do have the potential to produce fuel at the required standard, but this will require an estimated R40- to R60-billion investment.

By producing cleaner fuel, South Africa will also broaden its potential export market. Louise Naude, lead for low-carbon transport at the World Wide Fund (WWF), notes: “By producing fuel that is high in sulphur, we are constraining our export market. Many developed countries won’t buy our product, and those that do won’t pay top dollar for it.”

Whichever route South Africa chooses for its greener approach to transport will require significant investment, infrastructure development and government participation in revising policies and introducing incentives.

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