“Foundations” is a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Joe Ryan is a program officer and the managing director for Latin America in the Foundation’s Environment Program. In this position he coordinates all the Foundation’s air quality projects in Mexico and Brazil and also works on the issue in China. In this capacity, Joe works to promote public policy in support of cleaner vehicle fuels, to strengthen transportation regulations, and to increase public transportation in some of the world’s fastest-growing cities.

In the past fifteen years, Joe has lived and worked throughout Latin America, including five years in Brazil working with the Hewlett Foundation. A former Fulbright-Hays doctoral fellow, he has a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Let’s start at the beginning. When did the Environmental Program begin working to promote clean transportation in the developing world, and why did it decide to do so?

We started doing international work in 2002, mainly because we saw an opportunity to leverage foundation resources to improve the lives of people living in the world’s megacities. In most large cities, transportation is responsible for upwards of half of all urban air pollution. By reducing vehicle emissions, you reap benefits that can total billions of dollars annually in reduced healthcare costs. If you’re looking for the biggest social return on your investment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to invest because the culprit-vehicles-is well known, the solutions are there and tested, and the benefits are shared simultaneously by millions of people.

Can you tell us where the Program is working, and why those locations were chosen?

We started in three major developing countries: China, Mexico, and Brazil. In China, the vehicle population is growing by leaps and bounds. After less than a decade of vehicle production, China now is the third-largest vehicle maker in the world. The number of people in China buying vehicles for the first time is skyrocketing. That partly was why we wanted to focus there – to try to address the problem before China’s cities became as clogged and congested as cities in other countries.  Also, at the time, government officials were just beginning to realize the need for emissions standards and fuel economy regulations. These officials turned to our colleagues for help. How could we refuse?

In Mexico and Brazil things were different. Both countries were already home to two of the most polluted cities in the world: Mexico City and São Paulo. In this case, we had relationships with environmental officials and non-governmental organizations that already were working on the problem. Our role was to help them improve upon things they were already doing. A funder like the Hewlett Foundation can assist governments. When you see a vehicle population exploding, experts can go in and sit with the relevant policymakers and show them what will happen if they allow vehicle production to continue without any strong controls and what would happen if they imposed them.

As a practical matter, how does the work proceed?

Our preference always is to work with in-country organizations and experts. In the case of China, the Energy Foundation, which we fund, runs the China Sustainable Energy Program. The program has a staff of two dozen Chinese nationals who are experts in a wide variety of technical issues dealing with energy efficiency, including transportation. So we work through them. We also have a couple of other grantees with people in China. And when there is a need, we also bring in international experts to provide direct technical assistance to government agencies.

For example, a senior environmental official in Mexico contacted us to help develop the first-ever bus rapid transit line in Mexico City. She had heard about Hewlett’s work through a number of organizations we were already funding there. We sat down with her and our grantees, identified where the gaps were, mapped out what needed to be done and committed to do it. The result was one of the most popular bus rapid transit corridors in the world. After a year of operation, it has already carried 50 million passengers. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that makes it sound, but that, very basically, is how our transportation portfolio operates.  When we learn of an opportunity, we muster our colleagues and experts to help solve the problem. It’s always a combination of problem, potential social benefit, and a receptive political environment. Caracas, Venezuela, for example, has one of the dirtiest vehicle fleets in the Americas.  But the political environment there makes it an unlikely candidate for our work.

What are the consequences of not acting?

Let’s look at São Paulo. Research shows that vehicle pollution and traffic congestion together create a $2 billion drag on the city’s economy. And about 3,000 people a year die prematurely as a direct result of vehicle pollution: that’s ten people a day.

In Mexico City, other research shows that breathing the city’s polluted air is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. That’s true for everyone, from a two-year-old child to an eighty-year-old man.
In China, the scale is staggering. It has sixteen of the world’s twenty dirtiest cities with vehicle pollution rising steadily as a primary source of pollution. The country reported more than 75 million asthma attacks last year. And it’s estimated that China has 500,000 premature deaths annually because of illnesses related to vehicle pollution.  The cost of not acting is pretty high.

How can the Foundation’s resources be leveraged to make a significant difference in such a massive task?

The nice thing about our work is that the internal combustion engine is pretty much the same wherever you go. The problems you face in Beijing are fundamentally the same ones you face in Los Angeles. So the solutions are transferable from one vehicle population to another. Usually it’s a question of what is the best mix of solutions for a given city.

The first place you want to start are vehicle emission standards. In most places, the countries have some level of standards. In Brazil, they follow the European standards; in Mexico, they generally follow U.S. standards. The Chinese follow a hybrid of both. The initial question is, what are your standards now, and what are the chances of accelerating the process to get to a higher standard?

The next step is to discuss the need to improve fuel quality. It’s difficult to make those changes. To clean up one of the biggest culprits in urban air pollution-fuel for diesel vehicles-probably costs a country a couple billion dollars in capital expenditures.  So demonstrating the economic and health benefits is crucial. If you’re a policymaker and you invest $2 billion to clean up your diesel fuels by removing the sulfur, you end up saving something on the order of $20 to $30 billion in public health-related costs: fewer kids get asthma, fewer elderly go to the hospital on bad pollution days, fewer people suffer reduced productivity because of cardiovascular ailments.

In this case, the Bush administration has been very helpful. In 2000 it commissioned a review of the cost of environmental regulations to the U.S. economy, and it turned out that the cost over the past decade has been a net gain for the economy on the order of $.25 trillion annually. The vast majority of that gain came from regulations improving fuel quality and reducing tailpipe emissions.

What are the biggest obstacles to moving forward?

The biggest bang for the buck is raising emission and fuel quality standards, but that by itself can’t solve the vehicle pollution problem. You have to improve public transportation to encourage people to use it and discourage the use of private vehicles.

The hardest part about this work is convincing policymakers they must place restrictions on the use of private automobiles. In all these cities, the transportation system has been set up to favor individual car ownership. And the people who own cars tend to be wealthier and more influential. Most of the transportation systems in the world were based on the U.S. model, and it simply doesn’t work. In the United States, we have relatively clean vehicles and strict emissions standards, but the pollution in places like Los Angeles and Houston remains horrible. Individual vehicles simply are traveling too many miles. It threatens to swamp pollution control measures. A major challenge of this work will be to find a way to prevent the vehicle miles traveled from growing as fast as the population.

In cities in the developing world, the vehicle technology is far more primitive, and the public transportation systems tend to be more uncomfortable. So if you live in one of those places, the first thing you do when you get any kind of wealth is buy a vehicle. The challenge when working with policymakers in these cities is to show them that the battle is not just about controlling vehicle pollution; it’s also about encouraging the development and use of high-quality public transportation.

Tell us about some specific transportation projects the Environmental Program is working on.

We probably have the most work going on in China, with public transportation projects in a dozen cities. We also fund the China Sustainable Transportation Center, eight people dedicated solely to providing high-quality public transportation advice in Chinese cities – most of it is bus rapid transit systems. We provide the international expertise to help them design transportation systems that can move a comparable number of people to that of a subway, but for a fraction of the cost. A subway typically costs $100 million a mile. A world-class bus rapid transit system costs $10 million a mile. For mayors in China, this is a great solution.
For greater fuel economy, Hewlett-funded consultants helped China analyze national standards for passenger vehicles, and the Chinese developed standards that are far higher than those in the United States. U.S. automakers say that going to 30 miles per gallon for passenger vehicles would destroy the industry. China has adopted standards above 35 miles per gallon. The push now is to establish a timeline to supply Chinese vehicles with ultra-clean fuel.

And in Latin America?

In Mexico City, the mayor has adopted a green plan for the city that includes expanding the transportation system. His primary consultants on public transportation and non-motorized transportation are both Hewlett grantees. And a former grantee of ours is his environment secretary. His plan is to grow the bus rapid transit system from one line to ten in the next five years; he’s also developing pedestrian malls throughout the city and looking at charging drivers to bring private vehicles into certain parts of the city.  Our grantees are helping with all of these issues.

In São Paulo, bus rapid transit lines are a known quantity. What they don’t have is a high-quality line that would induce people to leave their cars for public transit. With the help of Hewlett grantees, who designed the plan, the city government is working to create a model transportation corridor using bus rapid transit and economic development all along the line. It will be revolutionary if they can pull it off because it will demonstrate that even in the largest and most congested city in South America, public transit can be fixed.

What are your goals for the Program over the next year or two?

The global goal is for everyone in the world to go to fuel quality with sulfur levels of 10 parts per million. That’s what we’re working toward. It’s going to take a decade to achieve it. But you can establish and adopt the policies now.

Expanding the use of high-quality public transportation is another. If we get a few more integrated bus rapid transit lines in Mexico City, launch lines in a number of new Chinese cities, and complete the São Paulo project, that would be a real success.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions of vehicles has become another priority. As the world recognizes the impact of climate change, it’s becoming more and more important. Much of what we’re going to do over the next five years will have the additional goal of reducing greenhouse gases from the transportation sector. We won’t drastically alter what we do; but there’s a greater sense of urgency because it’s no longer only about urban air pollution. It’s about climate change.