Combating Climate Change: Commercializing Clean Transport

A fleet of fuel cell buses help the Ministry of Science and Technology promote an environmentally-friendly Olympics, providing transport at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Since the 1990’s, China’s rapid growth has rested on the expansion of heavy industry and urbanisation. As the country’s economy surges and its middle class grows, pollution too has reached critical levels. 


  • Put simply, the commercial introduction of this pioneering new clean technology – which would mean that buses would be able to run on the energy that is created when hydrogen is mixed with oxygen – in China’s mega-cities is an innovative solution to China’s urban air pollution problems.

The use of coal and oil accounts for 90 percent of China’s total energy use, causing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and ozone concentrations to exceed nationally acceptable limits. The rise in the number of cars that choke city roads and demands for more public transportation have added to the problem. 

As air pollution mounts, the government is seeking new ways to combat the issue.  One such solution is to reduce CO2 emissions through the introduction of innovative buses that run on hydrogen fuel.

For more than a decade, China and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have been working together on fuel cell and advanced battery hybrid vehicle design through the Global Environment Facility by implementing “Demonstration of Fuel Cell Bus Commercialization in China” (Phase I and II) from 2003 to 2011.

Under this new clean technology vehicles run on energy created when hydrogen is mixed with oxygen.

“Instead of traditional engines, these vehicles run on electric motors hooked up to hydrogen gas tanks. Simply said, the fuel is combined with air, creating water and setting off a reaction which produces electricity,” says Mr. Manuel Soriano, Senior Global Climate Change Advisor at UNDP Regional Centre for Asia and the Pacific. “Fuel cell vehicle technology application can potentially develop further and become more commercially viable if the necessary support infrastructure such as Hydrogen production and refueling facilities will be available.” 

As the world’s largest bus producer and public transport consumer, China has the potential to make this clean energy technology commercially viable not just at home but across the world.   

The UNDP clean transport project has already advanced through several stages. The latest phase, which has placed the decade-old project back on the table for 2014 and beyond, saw the blueprint for a new Chinese project concept for “Accelerating the Development and Commercialization of Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCV) in China” (DevCom FCV) approved during the 46th GEF Council meeting held this May. The project will further develop the fuel cell vehicle in aspects of design, market diversification, and policy support structures to ensure its large-scale deployment in China by 2020, expediting FCV use in China by at least ten years.

The first step will be to eliminate or minimize current barriers for effective promotion, application, and local manufacturing of the FCVs. It is estimated that the project will reduce CO2 emissions from vehicles by 130,000 tonnes in the lifetime of the DevCom FCV. Added benefits will include significant reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).

Co-funded by the Chinese government, domestic companies, UNDP, and the Global Environment Facility, the project first assisted China to obtain the fuel cell buses in 2003. In the first phase, three Daimler fuel cell buses imported from Germany were put to use in Beijing and Shanghai. From June 2006 to October 2007, these buses clocked up more than 92,000 kilometres and led to a reduction of 99 tonnes of CO2 emissions in Beijing alone. Hydrogen refueling stations were also constructed and research undertaken to document the value of the fuel cell buses. From 2007 to 2011, phase two, the project continued to demonstrate how the FCVs could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas.

Public transportation companies received help in obtaining the buses, and technology suppliers were trained to identify cost-saving opportunities to enable the development of a large-scale international market for fuel cells and hybrid public transport infrastructure. As the project progressed, feedback was systematically gathered and utilised to enhance scientific and technical understanding of the fuel cell and alternative means of propulsion.

The second phase of the project resulted in a reduction of 83 tonnes of CO2 emissions in Beijing and 216 tonnes in Shanghai.  This led to attainment of 192,853 km in mileage[1] in the year-end of 2011. Public transit operators also gained experience in organising and managing larger fleets of fuel cell buses.

The project has increased support for FCVs in government and among private sector investors, the media, and other key groups.  The fuel cell buses were used as commuter and VIP reception vehicles during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games (three buses) and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo (six buses). These initiatives at high profile events were used to highlight the benefits of reducing dependency on imported oil, improved air quality health, and benefits to the environment and economy.

Workshops have demonstrated the benefits of fuel cell technology to other cities, and lessons learned have been showcased at international fuel cell vehicle forums.

[1] As of 15 January 2012, total mileage attained was 201,196 km, and total reduction in CO2 was 216,487 kg.