This essay was written by Alastair Campell and was shortlisted for the FT x RGS Essay Competition.
Explain how transport changes might help the world to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C of pre-industrial times; preferably lower than 1.5°C. The global average temperature is currently around 1°C above pre-industrial levels(1) and is expected to reach 1.5°C by 2040 at current rates(2). A worldwide effort to limit global warming is critical to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals and ensure the impacts of climate change do not become irreversible. All nations, especially the world’s heaviest polluters, must act urgently to reduce their net carbon emissions.
China, the USA, India and the EU were the four largest emitters of fossil fuel greenhouse gases pre-pandemic in 2018, accounting for 51% of global emissions, with China alone producing 27%(3). The transport sector, which remains largely reliant on the combustion of fossil fuels, contributes approximately one quarter of all energy related greenhouse gas emissions(4). Transport emissions are expected to grow at a faster rate than those from any other sector(5). In 2014, the USA, China, Russia, India, Brazil, Japan, Canada, Germany, Mexico and Iran together accounted for more than half of global transport emissions(6). Road travel contributes almost 75% of transport emissions and most of this is from passenger vehicles – cars and buses(7).
An obvious target for a reduction in net carbon emissions, therefore, is the daily footprint of hundreds of millions of commuters around the planet. The focus should be on urban and peri-urban areas where commuters overwhelmingly live and work. Firstly, commuters need safe, comfortable, affordable, reliable and efficient public transport; and, secondly, this transport should be powered by renewable energy sources, as opposed to fossil fuels.
One of the main differences between heavy-polluting nations and lower-emitting nations, is the proportion of the population that uses public transport, rather than private. In the USA,a mere 5% of people use public transport(8), while in Kenya the figure is roughly 70%(9).This has much to do with disposable income per capita –where people can afford a private vehicle and avoid public transport they do. However, in both countries there is severe traffic congestion; most intense in the cities of Nairobi and Boston(10). This is because both cities lack efficient public transport systems. Other high-polluting and congested cities include Mumbai, Cairo and São Paulo, none of which have adequate transport infrastructure for their large populations.
Although Kenya launched its first modern railway service in 2017, much expansion is required to reach the effectiveness of trains in cities like Shanghai, China. The rail infrastructure in the USA is vastly under-utilised for passenger services. While it is the largest in the world, over 255,000 kilometres in length, it is mainly used for commodity freight, not people. For perspective, in 2011 Mozambique’s relatively minuscule railway service carried 108million passengers, while the USA had less than a third of that, with only 31 million passengers(11).
President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 set the course for a national inter-state highway system that totalled 46,000 miles, connecting the USA in its entirety and promoting automobile travel. The post-war era was also one of growing prosperity for the USA, resulting in two related trends: the rise of the mass automobile; and the move to the suburbs, which in turn dealt a further blow to passenger rail use.
Major technological innovations will play a significant role in offsetting commuter transport emissions. Renewable energy-fuelled transport is no more complex than fossil-fuelled, in terms of production and manufacturing, but ensuring it is cheap and affordable is a much greater challenge. Transport prices usually drop over time, as new technologies are developed and widely adopted, but that can take decades – time the planet does not have. For transport infrastructure to be optimally effective and sustainable, it needs to cover the entirety of a city and be powered by renewable energy. However, this is costly and in poorer countries institutions like the World Bank need to help fund investments.
Barbara Humpton of technology-leader Siemens explains that some countries are unable to afford high-cost renewable technologies(12). China, for example, may have one of the highest GDPs in the world at $14.34 trillion, but it’s GDP per capita is only $10,262. This means the overwhelming majority of the population will have to wait until prices drop before they can buy electric vehicles. Siemens argues that governments of richer countries, such as the G7 or even the G20, should take the burden of investing in more expensive renewable transport for railways and bus services until prices drop so that poorer countries can invest and buy new transport technologies. This would accelerate reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid increasing the national debts of countries already in economic crisis.
New technologies remain unaffordable for most commuters and need to be further developed for mass transport solutions. As most of the promising carbon-reducing technologies for the transport sector are not yet commercially available, reducing emissions will bea formidable task. It is a challenge we cannot neglect.
Electricity’s share in transport energy consumption is projected to increase significantly(13). However, the emissions from electricity generation and transmission should be taken into account. Molten salt reactors show promise in providing safe, efficient electricity. Thorium is a fuel for reactors and is 250 times more common than uranium used in nuclear reactors. It is found mainly in India, the US and Australia.
To limit global warming and avoid catastrophic climate impacts, they need to address clean fuels, vehicle efficiency, city planning, infrastructure and transport programmes that promote a shift from private motor vehicle use to public transport and non-motorised transport, such as walking and cycling.
Decarbonisation of the transport sector would contribute significantly towards climate change mitigationand reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement.
1 – The Met Office, https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/about-us/press-office/news/weather-and-climate/2020/2021-global-temperature-forecast, 06 September 2021
2 – The IPCC, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/faq/faq-chapter-1/, 09 August 2021
3 – The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.KT?most_recent_value_desc=true, 2018
4 – United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/energy/what-we-do/transport, 06 September 2021
5 – World Resources Institute (WRI), Everything You Need to Know About the Fastest-Growing Sourceof Global Emissions: Transport, Shiying Wang and Mengpin Ge, 16 October 2019, https://www.wri.org/insights/everything-you-need-know-about-fastest-growing-source-global-emissions-transport, 06 September 2021
6 – WRI
7 – Our World in Data, Hannah Richie, 6 October 2020, https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions-from-transport, 06 September 2021
8 – United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/public-transportation-commuters.html, 01 April 2021
10 – U.S.News, https://www.usnews.com/news/cities/articles/10-cities-with-the-worst-traffic-in-the-us, 13 October 2020
11 – The Urbanist, https://www.theurbanist.org/2019/01/17/what-is-the-state-of-us-rail-travel-in-2019/, 17 January 2019
12 – Siemens interview with the Financial Times, 21 June 2021
13 – WRI
(Featured Image: © JanMayback)