Decarbonising transport: From smart technology to smart use

OECD Observer

Transport accounts for 23% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, making it the second-largest emitter after electricity and heat generation (42%). Transport CO2 emissions have increased by 57% between 1990 and 2012, and the sector has lagged behind in decarbonising. In the EU, transport CO2 emissions increased by 36% from 1990-2007, while other major sectors reduced theirs by about 15%. Recent decreases in transport CO2 emissions had more to do with the economic crisis, rather than a shift to greener forms of transport. 

The reality is, demand for CO2-intensive transport is growing rapidly, with particularly strong growth coming from trade-driven freight transport and a dramatic motorisation in the urban areas of lower and middle-income countries. By 2035, transport’s share of emissions could thus even reach 40% of the total.

What can be done? Waiting for technological breakthroughs to clean up engines could take a long time. Clearly how we use transport must also change. For the International Transport Forum (ITF), addressing both private vehicle use and trade freight to make them more climate-friendly could make a major contribution to curbing emissions in the meantime.

Sharing potential
Inefficient vehicle utilisation is a major cause of transport emissions. Occupancy rates for private cars are very low: barely above one person per car in many cities. In addition, these private cars only operate for an average of 50 minutes per day.

If, however, all private cars in a city were replaced by shared vehicles equipped with smart technology to facilitate sharing, we would see huge improvements: in a simulation based on real travel data for Lisbon, the ITF found that car occupancy rates doubled, making 95% of cars redundant and reducing car emissions by 30% - while maintaining a similar level of flexibility, comfort and availability as private cars. In fact, better than today because congestion would virtually disappear (30% less vehicle kilometres at the peak hour.)

This emissions reduction is achieved without any technological advances, simply through more efficient use of existing capacity. But shared vehicles also help speed up the introduction of cleaner technologies: the shorter life-cycle of better-utilised cars means fleets are replaced more quickly.

And there are further indirect effects that help reduce traffic emissions. The massive release of parking space would improve conditions for walking and cycling in the city, making these emission-free ways of moving about more attractive. The distribution of goods throughout built-up areas would become easier and more CO2-efficient as well.

The ITF’s simulation used two different vehicle types for this new type of urban mobility service: six-seater taxis that provide on-demand, door-to-door mobility and are shared by several users for part of a ride; complemented by taxibuses with up to 16 seats that extend the traditional bus concept beyond fixed routes and schedules, picking up and dropping off passengers within 300 metres of their origin or destination on routes that are dynamically aligned with demand and provide transfer-free service to all. Based on the model results, ITF thinks shared urban mobility services have the potential to develop into a new paradigm for public transport.

Trade starts at home
International trade-related freight currently accounts for about 30% of all transport emissions, and more than 6% of all global CO2 emissions. By 2050, international freight transport volumes will grow more than fourfold, significantly faster than global trade. Average transport distances will increase 12%. As a result, in spite of the technological progress CO2 emissions from freight transport could treble, and freight is set to replace passenger traffic as the main source of CO2 emissions from surface transport.

These foreseeable developments have serious implications for climate change mitigation. Shifting trade patterns in a globalised economy are leading to longer and more complex supply chains. Growth in global trade thus translates into an even faster growth in volume of freight transport.

In Africa and Asia in particular, more intra-continental freight is translating into particularly significant increases in CO2 emissions, as freight is mostly transported by trucks due to a lack of less carbon-intensive alternatives like rail or waterway. For Africa alone, freight emissions will increase by about 700% to 2050, and by more than 330% for Asia.

Addressing these trends is essential for combatting climate change, and dealing with domestic freight could yield a quick win. After all, though only 10% of the world’s international trade-related freight transport takes place within national borders, this small share generates 30% of the CO2 emissions that come from international trade freight. As these domestic emissions are subject to national regulations and do not require highly-negotiated international agreements, tackling them should be less complex.

As road transport in trucks remains the dominant means of moving goods from points of entry to the hinterland, developing inland waterways around ports or expanding rail links from ports and airports provide avenues for addressing this source of CO2 emissions.

Contact: Michael Kloth, Head of Communications

ITF (2015), ITF Transport Outlook 2015, OECD Publishing, Paris.

ITF (2015), Urban Mobility System Upgrade: Corporate Partnership Board Report, Paris.

IEA (2014), CO2 Emissions from fuel combustion 2014, IEA Publishing, Paris.

IEA (2013), World Energy Outlook 2013, OECD Publishing, Paris.

European Commission (2015), “Reducing emissions from transport”.   

Economic data

GDP growth: -9.8% Q2/Q1 2020 2020
Consumer price inflation: 1.3% Sep 2020 annual
Trade (G20): -17.7% exp, -16.7% imp, Q2/Q1 2020
Unemployment: 7.3% Sep 2020
Last update: 10 Nov 2020

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