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The transformation of transportation, whether on our roads, rail systems, waterways, or flight routes, must be accelerated if the global community is to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this century. That’s because transportation is the world’s second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases, surpassed only by electricity generation.
This fact becomes clear when one takes an unbiased look at the statistics. In 2015 motor vehicles, trains, ships, and planes emitted 7.5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, accounting for almost one fourth of all CO2 emissions worldwide. Although this figure is alarming in itself, the direction in which CO2 values are tending is of even greater concern. Today transportation-related emissions are already about 60 percent higher than in 1990. One of the reasons for this is the dramatic increase in the number of vehicles in developing countries and emerging markets.
For example, the number of motor vehicles in India doubled between 2008 and 2015 — from 105 million to 210 million. In China, the corresponding figure increased more than fourfold between 2005 and 2017 — to around 200 million. And the number of vehicles is also rising in industrialized countries, although not as dramatically. Germany, for example, had 62.6 million vehicles on its roads at the beginning of 2017, around one million more than in the previous year. And in the United States, 263.6 million vehicles were registered in 2015 — 3.2 million more than in 2014. The increase is even more dramatic when one looks at the development since 1980 (see graphic). If this trend continues, the prospects are bleak. According to forecasts, transportation-related CO2 emissions will increase by another 67 percent between now and 2050. Clearly, in view of this, the global community must take decisive action to bring about a worldwide transition to sustainable transportation systems.
Many countries want to reform transportation. Until recently, the first major obstacle the international community had to overcome was the lack of a binding international agreement. However, such an agreement was signed in Paris last year.
According to the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate forum, this climate accord will enable mankind to reduce transportation-related CO2 emissions from seven billion tons today to between three and four billion tons by 2050. Moreover, the agreement aims to completely decarbonize the global economy by 2100. As a result, the European Parliament resolved in 2016 to reduce transportation-related emissions to 40 percent of their 1990 levels by 2050.
Unfortunately, the Paris Convention faces a major obstacle: the fact that low- and zero-emission transportation is still relatively costly. Countries are primarily addressing this problem with regulatory measures, such as tax incentives for buying electric automobiles and bans on the registration of new vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines.
For example, Norway intends to completely ban the sale of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, beginning in 2025. And France and the UK will no longer allow cars with internal combustion engines to be registered, beginning in 2040. In China, meanwhile, the government wants between 40 and 50 percent of all new vehicles to be electric by 2030. All of these measures will inevitably boost the mass production of new drive technologies. As a result, costs will decline considerably and the technologies will be continuously improved.
All of these efforts would be to no avail if vehicles’ electric motors or hydrogen-powered drive systems use electricity that isn’t generated by means of low-emission systems. However, it is unlikely that in the next few decades all countries will be able to produce sufficient amounts of electricity from climate-neutral energy sources such as wind and solar power. Although the Paris Convention stipulates that carbon dioxide emissions from transportation must be drastically cut, only about half of the countries that signed the accord even state an intention to reduce transportation-related CO2 in their national plans. And even fewer countries mention concrete measures.
For example, it is already becoming clear that Germany won’t have enough electricity from renewable sources if its transportation sector becomes greenhouse-gas-neutral by 2050 as planned. It’s also doubtful whether the fleet of electric vehicles will grow as quickly as is hoped. According to the Berlin-based think tank Agora Verkehrswende, the German government probably won’t achieve its goal of having six million electric vehicles on the road by 2030.
Similar problems are being encountered worldwide. The Paris Convention stipulates that at least 20 percent of all road vehicles worldwide – about 100 million cars – will need to have electric drives by 2030 if global warming is to stay within the two-degree-Celsius limit by the end of the century. This problem is being exacerbated by the fact that low fuel prices and other factors are intensifying the trend toward SUVs in industrialized countries. On the whole, a lot of work (and convincing) thus still needs to be done.
Many people work in a city but live in a suburb or out in the country. Although rents and real estate prices are lower for people living outside cities, these advantages are offset by time wasted on the road and the resulting damage to the environment. In fact, the average German spend almost 70 hours a year in traffic jams. Compared to cities, where the number of privately used cars is declining, people in rural areas are holding on to their automobiles at all costs, and 70 percent of them drive to and from work. But alternatives are taking shape.
What are the primary obstacles to reduced carbon output?
Viegas: As is almost always the case, the biggest obstacle is the status quo.Over the 20th century we adjusted our cities and even our lifestyles to the private car. Consequently, there are companies that cling to old business models, people who don’t want to change their habits, and the fact that so many things have to be changed simultaneously to make the transportation transition possible. By its very nature, this generates resistance.
In your opinion, will we be able to overcome this resistance?
Viegas: The desire for change will definitely win out in the end. The automation of driving, electric mobility, and the digital networking of vehicles and people are opening up opportunities that nobody will be able to refuse, not only because of the problems caused by CO2 emissions, but also because new forms of convenience will be offered.
Will digital networking, in your view, help to cut emissions by providing convenient ways of car pooling?
Viegas: Over the long term, all of the developments I mentioned will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if you want to reduce the CO2 burden as fast as possible, you will also have to promote the shared use of vehicles. Nothing reduces CO2 as much as increasing the number of occupants per vehicle.
The automation of driving, electric mobility, and the digital networking of vehicles and people are opening up opportunities that nobody will be able to refuse, not only because of the problems caused by CO2 emissions, but also because new forms of convenience will be offered.
Prof. José Viegas
Many drivers aren’t exactly thrilled by this vision.
Viegas: That's true. But you have to think of the potential benefits. For example, if tomorrow’s driverless taxis still transport as few people as our privately owned cars do today, the total number of vehicle kilometers will double. The solution is therefore to turn mobility not only into an individual service but into a shared one. If we do that, we won’t need privately owned cars. When I was at the ITF, I conducted a simulation study of transportation in Lisbon. What we found was that even without expanding the subway system, if private vehicles were shared around the clock, the same level of mobility could be achieved with only about four percent of the current number of automobiles.
What role do companies such as Siemens, which is a member of the ITF’s Corporate Partnership Board, play in this process?
Viegas: Siemens is a recent, but highly active member of our Corporate Partnership Board. It is working with us on three ongoing projects. Together, we’re examining the “shared use city,” which focuses on the implications for infrastructure and pricing of innovative urban mobility services. Second, we’re looking at how safety and security can be ensured in a world of automated transport. And third, we are examining how blockchain and similar technologies may affect tomorrow’s transportation systems.
Interview conducted by Hubertus Breuer.
A native of Portugal, José Viegas was the Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD from 2012 to August 2017. The ITF acts as a transportation-focused think tank and a platform for global policy dialogue in the transport sector. Before his appointment to the ITF, Viegas was a Professor of Transport at the Technical University of Lisbon.
Companies such as Siemens already offer many sophisticated solutions for this transition, and they are working hard to create the technologies of tomorrow.
But this alone will not be enough. People will also have to change their mobility habits. As a result, a diversified plan will be needed to help people accept a new transportation structure that will no longer focus on privately owned cars to meet individual mobility needs. Initiatives such as the globally operating International Transport Forum (ITF) and Germany’s AGORA Verkehrswende are demonstrating how this can be achieved. These initiatives involve the promotion of ride sharing, the expansion of local public transportation, and the increased use of digital platforms that enable people to plan multimodal trips that encompass a variety of alternatives. Everyone — legislators, consumers, and industry — will have to pull together so that we can tackle this Herculean task.
Picture Credits: from top: 1, 5 gettyimages, 2 shutterstock, 4 imago sportfotodienst GmbH, 7 + 8, ITF, 2017
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