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Sustainable buses

How Sustainable is Your School Bus Service?

A fleet of school buses by School Transport Services (STS) for GEMS Modern Academy in Dubai.

Every day, tens of thousands of school students in the UAE commute to school in school buses that run on fossil fuel, emitting roughly 800-1,000 g of CO2 per kilometre.  Not only is this not aligned with the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, it sends the completely wrong message to our children.

In the long run, few would disagree that electric school buses are the way to go - they are far more energy efficient, produce no tailpipe emissions, and in the decarbonised electricity grid of the future, they are also zero-carbon.

But their rate of adoption in the UAE is likely to be slow, in part because of uncertainty about their performance in the region’s climate. But also because the transition from diesel to EVs requires significant capital investment for vehicle replacements and extensive EV fast-charging infrastructure.

school bus

Caption for this photo: Left to right: Karl Fielder, CEO of Neutral Fuels, Anthony Dixon, Founder and Chairman of TASS, Brett Girven, Principal of the Arbor School and convenor of TASS-Middle East, pictured at the Neutral Fuels factory in Dubai Investment Park.

This long-term timeframe is reflected in The Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure’s (MOEI) Electric Vehicle Policy targets - 50% of cars and 70% of buses to be electric by 2050.  Although some 50 countries worldwide have agreed to ban the sales of new vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2040 or earlier, the UAE is not yet among them.

Meanwhile, the transport sector continues to be the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately there’s a better option for schools than simply waiting for electric buses to come of age – biodiesel.

Few people know this, but biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil is one of the lowest carbon transport fuels available today at scale. And it’s manufactured in the UAE. In its pure form (B100), it cuts carbon emissions by 84%, although it is commonly used in blends of 20% or less.

Few people know this, but biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil is one of the lowest carbon transport fuels available today at scale. And it’s manufactured in the UAE. In its pure form (B100), it cuts carbon emissions by 84%, although it is commonly used in blends of 20% or less.

As an interim solution, biodiesel from waste offers schools several quick wins. It reduces carbon dioxide emissions while also promoting sustainable waste management – among other things, the recycling of used cooking oil from the school canteen. And it’s easy to implement – biodiesel can be used in school buses as a “drop-in” replacement fuel that doesn’t require any modification to the engine.

As it turns out, there are already about 250 school buses in Dubai running on biodiesel – buses owned by the school bus company STS Group.    But this is only a fraction of all the school buses on the road.

The Alliance for Sustainable Schools (TASS) estimates that if all school buses in the UAE were to start using a 20% blend of biodiesel (so-called “B20”) it would avoid about 25,000 tons of CO2 annually. This is equivalent to taking 5,500 cars off the road for a year.

Requiring all school buses to use biodiesel would certainly be an impactful addition to the UAE Ministry of Education’s Greening Education roadmap, and would also support the UAE’s decarbonisation goals.

But rather than wait for the policy penny to drop, TASS is actively working to facilitate the uptake of biodiesel by schools everywhere. Our approach is to develop a pilot project with one school in each country. The pilot enables any operational kinks to be worked out in the school’s local context. Once operational, it then provides a working model that other schools in that country can easily copy. Our role is then to facilitate the replication so that the impact of the pilot can be scaled.

In the UAE, we have been working with the Arbor school (a founding member of TASS in the Middle East) and Neutral Fuels (a Dubai-based biodiesel manufacturer and TASS Partner for Change) to demonstrate that biodiesel is a practical, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective alternative to fossil fuel for school buses.

Despite the obvious merits of biodiesel, not all bus companies are willing to come to the party right away. So, with the help of TASS’s student ambassadors, we’re also running a campaign to engage bus company executives in a conversation about their plans to provide green school transport.  This approach has met with success in Hong Kong where three school bus companies have agreed to make the switch in the last six months.

As a concrete action that all schools can take right now to lower their carbon footprint, getting the school buses running on biodiesel is a no-brainer. It mightn’t be the sexiest technology out there, but you’ve got to admit there’s a certain elegance about the notion of students commuting to and from school using a low carbon fuel made of waste from their canteen.

The Alliance for Sustainable Schools (TASS) is a non-profit network of schools working together to help accelerate the transition to a sustainable future. TASS’s members share a commitment to the principles of the Sustainable Schools Charter. As a community of practice, The Alliance connects sustainability practitioners in schools around the world, sharing their learning and amplifying their impact. As an agent of change, TASS harnesses the collective influence of its members, engages with its students, and partners with innovative organizations in their local communities to catalyse systems change in five focus areas – school food, school buses, school uniforms, school buildings, and education for sustainability.

Written by Anthony Dixon, Founder & Chairman of The Alliance for Sustainable Schools