Decarbonising Transport: What will It Take?

By Ross Douglas, CEO & Founder of Autonomy

Like many others, I sweated through Paris’s June heat wave and then flew to Italy for the summer holiday, adding my unfair share of carbon miles to an overtaxed environment.

Transport is responsible for some 30% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions, of which 72% comes from road transportation. As part of its efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, the EU plans to cut transport emissions 60% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.

The low-hanging fruit in making these cuts is road transport. Not only is it by far the biggest contributor to transport emissions (72%), it’s also the most amenable to technological improvements. The same cannot be said for shipping and aviation. 

Although international shipping is excluded from the Paris Agreement, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is nonetheless developing a strategy to reduce its greenhouse gases (GHGs). But a report from the International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT) found that efficiency improvements are being offset by increased activity. Not only are more ships sailing greater distances, but extra fuel is also being burned to radically ramp up travel speed.

Flights emit similar amounts of CO2 to shipping, accounting for 2.5% of global carbon emissions (around a billion tons annually). More than 80% of aviation emissions are from long-haul flights (over 1 500 km), which cannot easily be replaced by rail. And because our purchasing power has increased, more people than ever are flying. In 1945, it took 130 weeks’ work for the average Australian to buy a Sydney/London return airfare. In 2009, it took just 1.7 weeks, according to Air Transport Action Group

Like shipping, gains in aviation efficiency are offset by growing demand. Europe’s average airline fuel consumption per passenger in 2017 was 3.4 L/100 km, 24% down from 2005; but traffic grew by 60% over the same period. This year, close to 40 million flights are expected to depart from airports worldwide, a 300% increase on 1990 levels.

In addition to growing demand, there is another problem with aviation. The (IPCC) estimates that aviation’s total climate impact is two to four times that of its direct CO2 emissions. This is because planes operate at cruising altitudes of 8 to 13 km, where they release several gases and particles which are disproportionately bad for climate change.

SNCF’s high-speed train, Source: CNEWS

Rail is far better. The International Union of Railways reckons rail is on average three to ten times less CO2 intensive than road or air transport. Factoring in both freight and passenger services, rail’s average external costs (the negative effects borne by society as opposed to the individual user) are around a fifth what they are for road. 

Rail constitutes 8.5% of the modal share of the EU transport sector; yet it contributes less than 1.5% to CO2 emissions. This will reduce even further as European Railways push to halve CO2 emissions by 2030, using 1990 as the base year. If you want to reduce your CO2 footprint in France, then SNCF’s high-speed trains, which are powered by nuclear energy, are the way to go. Despite nuclear energy not being classified as “renewable”, it is free of CO2 emissions and therefore a factor in fighting climate change.

Rail has its limitations. High-speed rail costs more than aviation because the rail network needs to be inspected and maintained to ensure safety. Few countries are prepared to invest in the necessary rail infrastructure, and so travellers opt for planes and cars. And obviously rail cannot compete with shipping when it comes to bulk freighting. 

The auto industry doesn’t like all the negative attention; but road is the best area to move the needle on transport emissions. Road – mostly cars – are responsible for about 72% of all transport emissions. While technology forecasts suggest that shipping and aviation will not be transformed by clean technology anytime soon, the situation is very different for cars. 

The UN’s recent report on climate change states that to avoid warming of more than 2 degrees, we must halve CO2 emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050. The transport sector can play its part by improving how we use our roads. 

Transport sector CO2 emissions by mode, Source: IEA

Road CO2 is largely caused by 1.2 billion combustion cars moving single occupants to and from work. But replacing this thermal fleet with EVs is not the answer. 

The carbon footprint of a car includes production, use and recycling. Volkswagen, who is committed to an electric future, worked out the comparable CO2 emissions for a VW Golf.

The current Golf TDI (Diesel) emits 140g CO2/km on average over its entire life cycle, compared with a modestly better 119g CO2/km for an e-Golf. The problem for EVs is the production phase. Battery production, with its complex extraction and shipping of raw materials, is responsible for 57 g CO2/km for the EV, compared with 29 g CO2/km for the comparable diesel car.

EVs are great for reducing urban air pollution, but only slightly effective in reducing overall CO2. The answer is to rethink ownership patterns.

Many of us are locked in the consumerist fantasy that the same behavior, and the same ownership patterns, but with clean technology, will eliminate CO2 emissions.. and when needed, we can purchase the offsets. Carbon offsets are a confusing solution as they are given to a variety of projects with opaque results. Also, there’s the moral dilemma of encouraging, or at least excusing, behaviour that adds to global warming by charging, say, an extra $20 on a long-haul flight. 

Tree-planting is a favored solution for carbon offsets. An acre of planted trees can sequester between 1 and 9 tons per year. Man-made forests make ecological sense, so long as indigenous trees are planted that provide habitat to the local fauna and flora. Man-made forests of exotic trees have the added problem of maturing at the same time, which greatly increases the risk of forest fires.  

It makes more sense to preserve existing natural forests than grow new ones. According to Greenpeace, this year forest fires in Siberia released 138 megatons of CO2. The BBC reports that the 75 000 forest fires in Brazil since the start of the year have emitted the equivalent of 228 megatons. Put this together and it outdoes France’s annual CO2 emissions!

As terms like “flight shaming” enter the lexicon and a low-carbon lifestyle becomes cool, public pressure will change our travel behavior. Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg inspires with her decision to sail across the Atlantic rather than fly. Likewise, car ownership will start to be questioned because of its carbon footprint. Public pressure and cost savings will push urban commuters to Mobility as a Service (MaaS), where they will move by multiple forms of shared electric buses, cars, bicycles and scooters, blended with public transport. There’s also the emergence of ‘right-sized’ urban vehicles, which are perfect for narrow urban streets. Not only that, in terms of ‘embedded’ CO2 they are far lighter than a full-size EV and can take care of 90% of typical urban trips. Schaeffler’s nifty Bio-Hybrid, a 2-seater, 4-wheel pedal assist bicycle, is just one example of the exciting innovations hitting the micromobility market. 

We can seriously reduce emissions by replacing the 1.2 billion combustion cars with shared fleets of EVs of different shapes and sizes. Established industries like car manufacturing will be affected, but governments cannot be held to ransom by incumbents: the challenge of a heating planet demands bold politics and rational policymaking. 


Have you been looking for more climate change-related mobility content? Catch up with these UM Daily articles that deal with the most important issue of our time:

China’s Quest to Win the EV/AV Race in a Warming World

The End of Fossil Fuel Cars

Cooling Cities

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