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Clean Transport

What Do We Need For More Sustainable Personal Transportation?

Can we use the “spirit of chaos” that resulted from covid-19 to build back transportation differently and sustainably?

The choices we make about how we commute and travel affect our world. Certainly, our options are influenced by the availability of sustainable mobility alternatives, our ability to pay for particular types of transportation, the efficiency of transportation selections, and the carbon emissions that different transportation types contribute to the environment. The issues of long-term sustainable personal transportation have become very important, not only for individuals but entire municipalities, as a carbon-neutral future becomes imperative.

Climate change is the defining challenge of our time, and clean energy and green transport are the keys to addressing it. If we are to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the time to make green transport the norm is now.

Despite recent adoption of more stringent vehicle emission regulations in several major vehicle markets, the transportation sector remains a major contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonization of the transport sector can create a cleaner, healthier, and more affordable future while protecting the transportation efficiency and interconnectedness we’ve come to expect. If we don’t change the way we transport goods and humans, however, we will confront obstacles to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement and other global goals.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic slump, growing economies and expanding middle classes often meant shifts away from public transport toward more and larger vehicles. According to a report from International Energy Agency (IEA), carbon emissions from SUVs increased by 0.5% in 2020, even though the world’s energy-related emissions overall fell by 7%. SUVs are less fuel efficient than smaller, lighter, and more aerodynamic cars. They’re also highly profitable for automakers, who promote them to loyal consumers. Over the past decade, SUVs were the only area of energy-related emissions growth in advanced economies, adding 300 million tons of CO2 (Mt CO2).

Yet there is hope, says the IEA. A rapid increase in electric car sales, a shift to using smaller cars, and improvements in the efficiency of internal combustion engine vehicles are key pillars for reducing emissions from the auto sector.

For example, unlike sales of internal combustion engine vehicles, sales of electric cars over the first 11 months of 2020 grew by around 50%, or 850 000 vehicles, from a year earlier, according to data provided by EV Volumes. For the world to shift onto a path aligned with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, as mapped out in the UN Sustainable Development Scenario, electric SUVs’ share of total SUV sales needs to grow rapidly to over 35% by 2030.

Environmental policies on climate change and directives for the potential use of renewable energy sources to power electric vehicles will impact the speed and efficiency of zero emissions transportation. In the battle against pollution and the effects of the climate crisis, electrification is gaining momentum with encouragements like incentives, rebates, city chargers, and special parking for electric vehicles.

Research Into Sustainable Personal Transportation

Insights into Future Mobility, a multidisciplinary report from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), discusses how individual travel decisions are shaped by “complex interactions between technologies, markets, business models, government policies, and consumer preferences.” The report outlines how the consequences of these factors will evolve in years to come. What’s needed? The researchers say that continued techno­logical innovation, cross-sector policies, and changes to consumer behavior must take place if the US and other countries are to meet Paris Agreement targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The areas of focus were:

  • the impact of global climate policies on fleet composition and fuel consumption
  • the outlook for vehicle ownership and travel, with a focus on the US and China
  • characteristics and future market share of alternative fuel vehicles, including plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles
  • infrastructure considerations for charging and fueling, particularly as they affect future demand
  • the future of urban mobility, especially the potentially disruptive role of ride-hailing services and autonomous vehicles

What can be done?

  • Improve powertrain efficiency.
  • Deploy alternative fuel vehicles in the coming decades.
  • Decarbonize the production of fuels and electricity that power these vehicles.
  • Reduce the carbon intensity of the light-duty vehicle fleet.

How will consumers become positively influenced to adopt battery electric vehicles?

  • As production volumes increase, battery costs and the purchase price of electric vehicles will decrease, which will drive sales.
  • Improved batteries would extend the vehicle range, reinforcing the attractiveness of alternative fuel vehicles to consumers.
  • A larger publicly available charging infrastructure will grow, which is “critical for supporting charging convenience.”
  • Early government support for alternative fuel vehicles and charging and fueling infrastructure will appeal to consumers.

Data from the MIT study indicates that large-scale deployment of battery electric vehicles is expected to help them reach total cost-of-ownership parity with internal combustion engine vehicles in approximately 10 years in the US and “should also lead to new business opportunities, including solutions for developing cost-effective methods of recycling batteries on an industrial scale.”

Linking Gender Equality to the Transportation of Tomorrow

Speaking this year at Transforming Transportation 2021, sustainable mobility leaders from around the world and across the sector explored the deep impacts of Covid and its lasting effects on sustainable personal transportation. Lina Fedirko, a senior associate at the ClimateWorks Foundation, said that carbon emissions from transport can’t be reduced without centering equity and without focusing on “intersectional strategies around behavior change and sustainable lifestyles.”

In Detroit, just over a quarter of residents do not have access to a personal vehicle, noted Lisa Nuszkowski, founder and executive director of MoGo Detroit Bike Share. To help improve access for lower-income residents, the company started a pilot program with NUMO and the city of Detroit to provide 200 e-bikes to essential workers who lived within 6 miles of their job and didn’t have access to a vehicle or public transit. They also created an annual pass system for anyone who receives state benefits that costs just $5 a year.

In all countries, “this is a moment to think beyond the direct transport impacts,” Heather Allen, an independent gender and transport consultant, said. “Transport is a great facilitator for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and empowerment.”

“We know more women using safe, sustainable transport will accelerate action on climate change,” said Anitha Bhatia, assistant secretary-general for resource management, sustainability and partnerships, and deputy executive director of UN Women. “We need to make sure we’re building back equal.”

As the sector adjusts to the new reality of a changed landscape, leaders urged more collaboration and joint ownership of the problem-solving potential within sustainable personal transportation goals. “We need collective action between the private sector and public sector,” said Florent Menegaux, CEO of Michelin. “We need finance corporations to finance the transition, to accept the fact that they cannot finance based on the old model, to accept the risk based on the new model.”

“We need to use this spirit of chaos to build back differently,” said Stientje Van Veldhoven, minister for the environment and housing for the Netherlands. “We need to go faster and further. We have no time to waste.”

Photo by Carolyn Fortuna

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Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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