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Soaring transport emissions derail the optimal trajectory towards sustainability

The road to zero emissions from transport is moving farther away despite the rising number of countries and companies pledging to become carbon neutral.

Decarbonization of vehicle engines is a critical step towards sustainability, but alone, it is not enough. Carbon neutral production is also needed for zero emissions, in addition to zero waste and better utilization of vehicles and resources to reach a higher level of sustainability.

What is the real problem behind soaring emissions from the automotive sector

Emissions in transport continue to rise and the sector is far from being on track to meet the global climate targets for 2030 and 2050.

The transportation sector is currently the second-largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide. It’s also the major consumer of oil, accounting for 26% of total GHGs and 45% of total oil consumption. 

Global energy demand for transport is growing much faster than any other sector, while the sector still relies heavily on fossil fuels and has by far the lowest share of renewables among end-use sectors. At the same time, the direct impacts of climate change are already apparent and expected to worsen in the decades to come. 

Commitments and pledges aiming to promote carbon-neutral mobility to help stop climate change made by different actors in the previous years. However, by the end of 2020, it was already clear that progress towards many of the goals and targets associated with the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement was regionally unequal and globally insufficient.

“Over a billion people still lack access to an all-weather road, and only about half the world’s urban population have convenient access to public transport […] the Sustainable Development Goal for road safety – which aimed to halve, by 2020, the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents – has not been met, with road traffic injuries being the leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 29.”

United Nations Report (2021): Sustainable Transport and Sustainable Development

Close to a quarter of energy-related global GHGs are generated by the transportation sector. These emissions are expected to grow substantially in the years to come, further exacerbating climate change.

The following graph shows the development of CO2 greenhouse gasses for different transport modes for the 2006–2020 time period.

  • Passenger road vehicle transport has been by far the bulkiest contributor to direct CO2 GHGs.
  • Road vehicles – cars, trucks, and buses- account for nearly three-quarters of transport-related CO2,
  • whereas gasses from aviation and shipping continue to rise.
  • In contrast, rail accounted for only about 0.1 Gt remaining among the most sustainable, low-carbon transport modes.

Soaring transport emissions derail the optimal trajectory towards sustainability 1

Source: IEA

Global spending to mitigate some of the worst impacts of the Covid-19 has been incommensurate with the scale of the planetary crises of climate change, nature loss, and pollution

Countries with fiscal capacity have responded to the economic challenge of COVID-19 with massive spending packages. According to the Global Recovery Observatory, in 2020, the world’s fifty largest economies announced $14.6 trillion in fiscal measures to address the crisis. When European Commission commitments are included, total spending approaches $17 trillion.

Total green spending in energy and renewable energy sources, transportation, natural capital, and green R&D, is sizable, at $368bn excluding the European Commission and up to $697bn including the European Commission. Thus, only 2.2% of $17 trillion in total COVID-19 fiscal spending (excluding unallocated EU spending) was allocated to promote low-carbon, green policies. The amount of stimulus spending dedicated to green transport investments accounted for $86.1bn.

Soaring transport emissions derail the optimal trajectory towards sustainability 2

Source: Global Recovery Observatory
*European Commission funds excluded

The rising demand for travel and freight makes it challenging to decarbonize transportation

In Asia, Europe, and North America motorized mobility in the forms of private vehicles, is the dominant urban transport mode. Other transport modes such as walking, public buses, rail, shared vehicles, etc., currently represent only a minor proportion of private travel passenger demand. 

In the U.S., which leads the world in personal motorized mobility, the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by light-duty motor vehicles (passenger cars and light-duty trucks) increased by 48 percent from 1990 to 2019 to approximately 4.9 trillion miles, as a result of a confluence of factors including economic growth, population growth, urban sprawl, and periods of low fuel prices. 

By the end of 2020, demand for private motorized mobility in the US represented the largest portion of passenger travel demand among different transport modes.

Soaring transport emissions derail the optimal trajectory towards sustainability 3

Source: Auto2x, data extracted in Nov.2021 from OECD.Stat

Moreover, data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveals that the US transport sector is now responsible for emitting more greenhouse gases than any other, including electricity production and agriculture. GHGs from transportation primarily come from burning fossil fuel for cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. Over 90% of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum-based, which includes primarily diesel and gasoline.

According to EPA, the largest sources of transportation-related GHGs include passenger cars, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, light-duty trucks, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), pickup trucks, and minivans. These sources account for over half of the greenhouse gases from the US transportation sector.

The expected emissions reductions from the current transport decarbonization policies will be more than offset by increased transport demand

According to the International Transport Forum Outlook (2021), current transport decarbonization policies are insufficient to pivot passenger and freight transport onto a sustainable path. CO2 transport-related greenhouse gasses will increase by 16% to 2050 even if today’s commitments to decarbonize transportation are fully implemented.

Under ITF’s recovery scenario, by 2030, the overall demand for private motorized mobility is projected to grow substantially, despite the current policies that aim to reduce car dependency and transform demand toward more sustainable transport modes. The following graph summarizes the demand’s growth in selected regions, under five motorized transport modes: private passenger cars, taxis, ride-hailing & car-sharing vehicles, and shared minibuses.

Soaring transport emissions derail the optimal trajectory towards sustainability 4

Source: ITF Transport Outlook; data extracted in Nov.2021 from OECD.Stat

Growth in motorized passenger transport demand, measured in passenger-km, is expected to be driven mainly by Asia, which is forecasted to grow 2.4-fold between 2015 and 2030. In North America (the US and Canada), the demand increases 1.3-fold; whereas growth is expected to be more moderate in the European region.

Rapid motorization is at the heart of the challenge regarding transport decarbonization in China

In China, rapid urbanization, rising incomes, and declining automobile prices have led over the past few decades to a wave of mass motorization and a ballooning demand for mobility. In China, there are currently fewer than 200 vehicles per 1,000 people, compared to about 600 in the European Union and over 800 in the United States.

Moreover, the share of transport in overall carbon gasses is around 10% in China, whereas, in Germany and the US where motorization rates are significantly higher, transport GHGs account for 24% and 30 % of the total, respectively. Based on this, as China’s motorization rate rises, it is expected that the share of transport in total GHGs would increase accordingly unless their fuel sources and energy efficiency significantly improve through electrification and other technological improvements.

An aggressive EV market strategy is necessary, however, relying solely on electrification may not be sufficient for decarbonizing transport.

The Chinese government has highly promoted the transition to EVs, the 1.3 million EVs sold in China in 2020 represented 41% of global EV sales, just behind Europe with 42% of global EV sales.

China is still far ahead of the US for EV share – in the US, EV sales represented just 2.4% of sales in 2020. EV penetration is expected to grow up to 10%-12% of new vehicle sales, or greater, by 2023, according to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). The “Energy-saving and New Energy Vehicle Technology Roadmap 2.0” released by SAE China in collaboration with MIIT, predicts that the NEVs share will reach 40% by 2030 and over 50% by 2035.

However, soaring motorization rates may partially offset the advantages provided by the increasing EV penetration and the transition to renewable energy sources.

If China were to reach 600 vehicles per 1,000 people (the current level of the EU), transport emissions would still be about half of their current level. That is much better than a relatively low EV market share scenario but remains far from carbon neutrality, which China has pledged to reach by 2060. This suggests that relying solely on electrification is a risky strategy.

Source: World Bank Blog “The 500-million-vehicle question: What will it take for China to decarbonize transport?”

EV Charging infrastructure is lagging, especially in Europe 

A robust charging network is vital to ensure “range anxiety” does not affect the growing demand for electric vehicles. According to the latest report from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) the charging infrastructure in Europe is growing too slowly, especially compared to EV sales.

In 2020, the pace of plug-in car sales increased by 110% compared to three years ago, while the number of charging points grew by “just” 58% (to under 200,000). More than 85% of those points (171,239) were rated at less than 22 kW, while the remaining 14.3% (28,586) are 22 kW or more. In addition, according to data provided by EAFO, approximately 73% of publicly accessible recharging points in EU-27 plus UK, EFTA countries, and Turkey were located in five countries; i.e. the Netherlands, France, Germany, Norway, and the UK.

Furthermore, these five leading countries have rolled out a significantly higher number of slow power recharging points compared to high power recharging points; among the five, Norway had by far the highest high power (DC) to total recharging points ratio (i.e. 38%).

Transportation network companies (TNCs) have expanded their operations, but with controversial results regarding congestion and emissions.

Despite early promises that ride-sharing would lead to fewer cars on the road, TNCs such as Uber and Lyft have been found to cause an increase in congestion in many cities. In the nine large U.S. metropolitan areas of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., it is estimated that TNCs add an additional 5.7 billion miles of driving annually. Moreover, instead of replacing personal automobiles, TNCs are primarily supplanting more space-efficient modes of transportation such as walking, biking, buses, and subways.

The increases in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) may be attributed to the way TNCs operate. For example Uber and Lyft found that approximately one third of TNC vehicle miles travelled can be attributed to a driver waiting for a ride request, approximately 10% to a driver heading to pick up a passenger, and approximately only half to when a passenger is in the vehicle. The increase in vehicles on the road and miles travelled by TNCs leads to an increase in congestion in city streets – especially dense city centers- additional greenhouse gasses and other pollutants.

In recent years TNCs have introduced several emission-mitigating instruments, such as multiple pick-up services in major cities (e.g., car-pooling), incentives for hybrid and electric vehicles, commitments for zero-emission fleets, or carbon-offset purchases for rides. Yet, significant efforts should be made in the direction where local governments and agencies work closely with ride-hailing operators to enhance public transit instead of undermining it, promote policy frameworks that encourage shared rides, and accelerate the transition in ride-hailing fleets from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs), and in particular to battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

emissions transport pollution
CO2 emissions – Image Source: Union of concerned scientists

The rapid deployment of new technologies is essential for the transition to sustainable transport, but policies have to ensure that transport benefits everyone

Built-in safety features, widespread digitalization, electric cars and buses, renewable energy sources, apps that process real-time information, autonomous vehicles, and intelligent transport systems have the potential to become central features of the future sustainable transport system. But to be effective, new and emerging technologies have to come along with innovative policy changes to ensure that transport strategies benefit everyone.

Building a truly sustainable transportation system does not mean only to enhance the services and the infrastructure for the mobility of people and goods, but more essentially to accelerate progress towards other crucial goals such as eradicating poverty in all its dimensions, reducing inequality, empowering women, and combating climate change.

Thus, an optimal trajectory towards sustainable transportation is unlikely to be achieved under policies that work under narrow self-interest, and nor is it likely that it will be resolved solely by the introduction of new technologies. Rather, it is likely to require carefully crafted interventions that have a good fit with unique social and economic circumstances, and which will work in an integrated way to achieve change consistently throughout the transport system

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