Canadian NGOs launch electric school bus alliance to accelerate transition from diesel
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Apr 21, 2022
Josh Kozelj

The Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance, led by Équiterre and Green Communities Canada, and funded by the Trottier Family Foundation, will provide education, promote awareness and advocate policy change

In an effort to accelerate the adoption of electric buses, a group of NGOs have established a national alliance to conduct research, raise awareness, share resources and promote policy change.

The Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance, led by Équiterre and Green Communities Canada, and funded by the Trottier Family Foundation, will provide education, promote awareness and advocate policy change

A group of organizations from across Canada are coming together to form a new collective that aims to distribute knowledge, influence policy and promote the uptake of electric school buses throughout the country. 

headshot of Jean Patrick Toussaint
Jean-Patrick Toussaint, senior climate director at Trottier Family Foundation. Photo: Jean Patrick Toussaint/LinkedIn

The collective, dubbed the Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance (CESBA), is led by Équiterre, a Quebec-based non-profit, and the Ontario environmental group Green Communities Canada. It is backed by a $200,000 investment from the Trottier Family Foundation with additional funding from the Consecon Foundation and the Echo Foundation

“All children go to school,” says Jean-Patrick Toussaint, senior climate director at the Trottier Family Foundation in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada

“We’ve been using school buses for decades, and if we can make a difference in this sort of public transportation space that impacts our children and reduces the health impacts … that’s a win.”

Policy commitments

A key goal for the new Alliance is to foster the growth of policy commitments at all three levels of government that will help to enable the transition of school buses from diesel to electric, and help reach the federal government’s zero-emission vehicle transition goals, says Brianna Salmon, executive director of Green Communities Canada.

In total, along with Équiterre and Green Communities Canada, the Alliance will comprise seven organizations spread across four regions of the country: B.C, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

Équiterre, specifically, has seen electric school bus implementation take hold in Quebec — notably, due to last year’s declaration by Premier François Legault that 65 per cent of school buses in the province would be electric by 2030 — and it wants to share that electric-first mindset with the rest of the country. 

Headshot Andréanne Brazeau
Andréanne Brazeau, policy analyst with Équiterre. Photo: Andréanne Brazeau/LinkedIn

“It really made sense to us to have a leading role in this alliance because we’ve worked on this issue in Quebec and have a strong expertise in electrification of transport in general,” says Andréanne Brazeau, a policy analyst at Équiterre. 

The other members that are set to join the Alliance include For Our Kids, the Pembina Institute, Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Ecology Action Centre, and Pollution Probe. 

These organizations will make up a steering committee that will meet regularly, oversee decisions regarding the Alliance’s advocacy goals, and collaborate on the plans to grow electric school bus adoption nationwide. 

Identify hurdles

While Brazeau wants the Alliance to help grow the use of electric buses in areas where EVs are more common, she also hopes the collective will identify hurdles to electrifying buses everywhere and help make the transition process more efficient.

Within its first year, the Alliance will produce a diagnostic report on the current state of usage for electric school buses across the country, identifying areas where electrification is less advanced and understanding barriers to adoption, to provide answers on how to accelerate EV usage. 

The announcement of the CESBA comes just months after the Trottier Family Foundation made an $800,000 investment to 10 organizations — six of which are now also part of the Alliance — to spur the implementation of electric school bus use in different regions. 

In Electric Autonomy’s story on that investment, Trottier’s executive director Eric St-Pierre said the organization saw its funding as a catalyst to spark systemic changes towards the growth of electric school buses.

Toussaint says the foundation’s financial backing for the Alliance — an idea that was presented in response to Trottier’s initial request for proposals from regional organizations — is a complementary step towards creating long-lasting impact.

“Climate is a wicked problem,” Toussaint said. “I think, if we had funded the purchase of a few buses, yes, it would have made a small difference, but it would have been very incremental.” 

How will the Alliance work? 

The Alliance’s steering committee members were intentionally selected from regions of the country where there is already strong momentum towards the electrification of buses and overall vehicles.

For Green Communities Canada, the decision to take a leadership role in the Alliance builds on its work in supporting active school travel in Ontario and a desire to connect with other like-minded groups across the country. 

Headshot of Brianna Salmon
Brianna Salmon, executive director at Green Communities Canada. Photo: Brianna Salmon, LinkedIn

“We also encourage, through our active school travel programming, bus ridership as part of a way to support sustainable transportation to school,” says Salmon. “So we felt this was really a natural evolution … to support more sustainable school bus trips.” 

The steering committee will also play a role in setting a direction in terms of what the Alliance hopes to advocate for at federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. 

Along with the steering committee, Brazeau says, the Alliance will include members such as research groups, school bus operators, and school board associations who will provide analysis and input to the founding members on what it will take to get more electric buses on the road.

“The Alliance really started from the fact that only one per cent of school buses are electric, if not less, at the moment in Canada,” Brazeau says. 

Brazeau adds that the Alliance will host learning workshops and post resources, similar to Équiterre’s “My Electric Bus” platform, a website launched last year to provide instructional readings and videos for drivers and school transportation leaders on electrification. 

One year from now, she also hopes to have a conference that will bring together members of government to highlight the importance of electric school buses. 

“Diesel-powered buses, which present more than 70 per cent of our buses on the road at the moment, emit a lot of pollutants that are bad for our health. So, it came as a priority to work on this issue for our children.” 

In a press release, the Alliance lists a five-point charter that inspires its work: (1) recognizing the significant role of the transportation sector in urgently addressing the climate crisis; (2) placing the health of children and future generations at its core; (3) creating inclusive low-carbon communities that secure climate justice; (4) acknowledging the necessity for a just and fair transition of the school bus manufacturing and operations sectors and (5) promoting sustainable procurement and manufacturing practices relating to transport electrification.

Health concerns a priority

Efforts to address the second point, protecting children’s health, have also been picking up momentum recently in the United States. 

In 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the “Clean School Bus Program,” which will provide US$5 billion to replace existing school buses in the country with zero-emission ones. 

While school buses travel about four billion miles a year and transport more than 25 million American children each day, the EPA has reported that diesel exhaust can lead to health conditions including asthma and other heart and lung diseases — primarily for young children and the elderly — along with consequential environmental impacts. 

In 1989, the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that exhaust from diesel engines was a “probable human carcinogen.” In 2002, a study in the Maryland-based National Library of Medicine reported that children in the U.S. who rode the bus for one to two hours a day for 180 days over the course of 10 years might result in around 23 to 46 additional cancer deaths per 1 million children.

That same year, a separate study from Yale University uncovered that fine particulate matters inside buses were five to 10 times higher than outside.

Mobilizing stakeholders

Here, north of the border, the movement towards electrifying school buses is slowly growing. In one of the biggest moves to date, Student Transport of Canada announcing tentative plans in October to operate 1,000 electric school buses that will be built by the Quebec manufacturer Lion Electric. 

“What [the CESBA] is going to be doing is to mobilize stakeholders from across the country to engage in some really important research and data sharing so we can have a clearer impact of school busing currently,” Salmon says. “[It also holds] the potential for accelerated emission reductions in the future if there is a transition to electric school buses.” 

Salmon hopes that linking forces with like-minded groups from across the country will kickstart momentum and knowledge around the potential of electric buses. “There’s a huge opportunity with the groups that are coming together,” she says. 

“We’ll be working with folks in the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, and in British Columbia, through the [Alliance] and [we] would look to expand to be fully national in the years to come.”

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