Climate: Can the transportation sector achieve big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions?

Evening train, platform 7.
A big shift away from automobiles to public transportation could help cap greenhouse gas pollution from the transportation sector. @bberwyn photo.

New studies sees potential for reductions with fundamental shifts in transportation policies

Staff Report

The heat-trapping pollution spewing from trucks, cars, busses, ships and airplanes adds up to a hefty 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — and they are projected to double by 2050.

But with a concerted effort, the transportation sector could cut that amount by half within the next 35 years. Needed is more fuel efficiency and more public transit in cities, along with a large-scale shift to electric cars, according to a new study that took a close look at emissions from transportation.The findings, published in the journal Science, explain that, thanks to a continuing drop in battery prices, electric drives have bettered their position relative to engines running on biofuels or fuel cells using hydrogen. The price per kilowatt-hour has dropped from about $1,000 in 2007 to about $410 in 2014. By 2030, the price per kilowatt-hour could drop to just $200. according to the researchers.

“Large-scale electric mobility could be crucial in reducing CO2 emissions in the transport sector by one half by 2050,” said lead author Felix Creutzig, a researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. Electric mobility at that scale includes car-sharing concepts, electric bicycles and rail transport, Creutzig said.

“Efficiency gains will be very difficult to achieve with the conventional automobile fleet from 2025 on. In that context, a fuel shift will be the only remaining option to advance de-carbonization,” he added.

The new article bases its insights on transformation pathways from the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and combines those with more recent and, in some cases more detailed, data on how people commute and travel. The results show that fundamental shifts in transportation policy are needed to achieve big cuts.

“Recent evidence suggests that if we were to replicate best-practice examples that we see throughout the world today, then we could harness more of the mitigation potential that’s out there,” said David McCollum, a researcher with International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna who contributed to the study’s updated synthesis of the transport literature, particularly as it relates to vehicle electrification, urban transport solutions and behavioral change.

Climate protection solutions in the transport sector rely significantly on urban infrastructure policies.

“The most effective form of climate mitigation is every single kilometer we manage not to drive. This is what also generates the most health benefits, for one due to cleaner air,” Creutzig said. “Infrastructure investments in new train tracks or fast-lane bike paths, for example, are essentially minimal when considering that they reduce the need to build more roads and parking lots.”

Moreover, such investments usually result in positive path dependencies. For example, when parking is made more expensive in downtown areas, accompanied by an improvement of public transport, people tend to give up driving and use other forms of transportation in the city centers. Such shifts can then turn into more permanent habits.

The upcoming Paris climate conference could provide a venue for discussing the topics of urban transport and electric cars. McCollum said.

“When it comes to really transforming the transport sector on a path towards climate protection, global policy makers have to date been a bit timid,” he concluded.

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