How do we get urban transport to deliver on global climate targets?

To maintain the agreed international schedule, the sector will need to move beyond fossil fuels shortly after 2050 in the world’s most advanced regions, and by 2070 elsewhere.
Rush hour in central Bangkok (Panya7/Shutterstock)

Transport today accounts for about 14 percent of global human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases. But even that substantial figure could be an underestimate in the longer term: After all, emissions from this sector currently are expected to double by mid-century.

Even as demographics, behaviour, business and technology are driving major increases in transport demand, the sector remains overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, which power a staggering 98 percent of global transport options. Meanwhile, another 2 to 3 billion people are expected to live in cities by 2050, placing further pressure on urban transport systems even while creating an explosion in urban passenger trips and freight deliveries.

The transport sector also is somewhat unique in how decisions made today on related infrastructure “lock in” demand for tomorrow. Thus, urban policy in the next few years will determine whether we set a course for a high- or low-carbon transport future, especially in rapidly motorizing countries. For the new international climate regime, which sets international goals for the end of this century, that’s of enormous consequence.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change set a clear target for greenhouse gas emissions by agreeing to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2º C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels.” That applies to all sectors, including transport.

[See: Buildings, transport must help ensure emissions ‘turning point’ by 2020, new initiative warns]

Yet not only are transport-related emissions still rising, travel demand is expected to double in coming years in some sub-sectors such as air and rail. For this reason, a mere evolution of current transport policies will not be enough to achieve the Paris goals.

Rather, limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees C will require nothing short of “decarbonizing” transport — moving the sector beyond fossil fuels, and quickly. To maintain the Paris Agreement schedule, this will need to happen soon after 2050 in the most advanced regions, and by 2070 in other parts of the world.

Avoid, shift, improve

That’s no small task: Doing so will require transformational changes in thinking, policy, technology and investment. Two projects are currently under development at the global level to guide and provide momentum to this transformation: a roadmap and an advocacy platform.

“Decarbonizing transport will mean embracing policies to avoid unwanted or unnecessary trips, or to shift trips to lower-carbon modes. As such, it is policies in areas such as education, housing, health and planning that will determine the long-term scale and form of transport demand.”

The Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Development (SLoCaT) and its partners are committed to supporting the implementation of the Paris Agreement in the transport sector. Together with Michelin Challenge Bibendum, we have created the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate (PPMC) to mobilize action on transport and climate change. A key part of the PPMC’s follow-up to the Paris Agreement is the development of a global roadmap for decarbonizing the transport sector: a single, compelling vision for the sector’s transformation.

An important part of this roadmap, which is currently under development, is a recognition that tackling climate change is not the only challenge facing transport. Roadway congestion undermines the efficiency of and quality of life in urban areas, road collisions kill 1.3 million people per year and injure millions more, and air pollution from motor vehicles leads to the deaths of even more. These development objectives, in addition to the climate change challenge, are also part of the new Sustainable Development Goals and, ultimately, of delivering sustainable urbanization.

[See: The New Urban Agenda is not taking transport seriously enough]

So what tools do we have available to foster this speeded-up transformation toward a carbon-free transport sector? Recent improvements in transport technology such as electric or hybrid vehicles and ride-hailing apps certainly have been attracting deserved attention. But by themselves, these will not ensure “access for all” to the benefits of urban living or ensure that transport contributes to the 1.5 degree C target.

Instead, there is going to be a significant role for comprehensive policy and behavioural changes. For instance, decarbonizing transport will mean embracing policies to avoid unwanted or unnecessary trips, or to shift trips to lower-carbon modes. As such, it is policies in areas such as education, housing, health and planning that will determine the long-term scale and form of transport demand.

In short, we need to embrace an “avoid, shift, improve” framework to create a balanced set of transport options to reduce emissions and maximize development benefits. For instance, a monthly auction on vehicle licenses has reduced the growth rate of private vehicles in Shanghai by about 30 percent (“avoid”), development of Mexico City’s Metrobus bus-rapid-transit system has led to a 15 percent mode shift from cars (“shift”), and electric vehicles reached nearly 30 percent market share in Norway at the end of 2016 (“improve”).

Price signals also influence behaviour. For this reason, transport-related prices should reflect external costs — pollution, noise, accidents, congestion and more. Such policies would encourage travel choices that benefit society and help raise much-needed financing for urban mobility services in a fair way. Examples can be seen in congestion pricing schemes in London, Singapore and Stockholm, and progressive parking pricing in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen and many other cities.

[See: Can cities get the global car industry to ‘clean up its act’?]

Regulatory strategies also will play an important role. For instance, targeted road pricing and general carbon taxes simultaneously can reduce car use, stimulate private investments in clean vehicles and fund improvements in public transport. Fuel subsidies, which are still in place in many parts of the world, frustrate the transition to low-carbon transport and should be phased out.

Much of this requires the input of national governments, but there are also key actions that can be undertaken by cities — and that already are. At the global COP 22” climate talks in November, for instance, cities and others adopted a new framework called the Marrakech Partnership on Global Climate Action.

Among other points, this initiative is advancing 15 global sustainable transport initiatives from cities and other non-state actors — rail and public transport, urban electric transport, fuel-efficient vehicles, “green freight”, cycling, intelligent transport systems, low-carbon taxis and urban planning. If widely supported by state and non-state actors and implemented at scale, these actions can reduce the carbon footprint of an estimated half of all passenger and freight trips made by 2025.

[See: What did the COP 22 climate talks mean for cities?]

Local governments also can play a key role in improving access to sustainable, low-carbon transport. Since 2012, there has been a substantial increase in the number of city initiatives and commitments on sustainable, low-carbon transport.

For instance, the C40 Cities Clean Bus Declaration of Intent saw signatories commit to reducing emissions and improving air quality by incorporating low- and zero-emission buses in their fleets. Other good examples include  sustainable transport commitments under the (now merged) Compact of Mayors and the Covenant of Mayors, in which signatories aim to meet and exceed the European Union’s objective of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

Roadmap and quick wins

To guide the transformation toward low-carbon and sustainable transport, however, we need broad consensus on a comprehensive global roadmap that links policy, investment and behaviour as well as technology in a coordinated manner. The aim of such a roadmap would be to put transport on a path to decarbonization early in the second half of this century.

“The dominance of the freight sector by commercial actors means that if regulations and price signals are correct, the sector will rapidly adopt new solutions. ”

Transport’s transformation will be greatly aided by implementing a series of “quick-win” actions to kick-start progress toward a longer-term shift. There is already broad consensus on the need in cities for passenger transport systems based on more walking, cycling, more-efficient public transport and shared mobility solutions to support sustainable development and climate change goals. Likewise, there is agreement on the need for appropriate pricing structures for transport. In all of these areas, “quick-win” actions can and should be deployed.

[See: How cities plan around mobility is central to sustainable urbanization, advocates say]

For instance, useful experience has been gained in the transformation of urban transport through local-access regulations targeting air-quality improvements and congestion reduction — for instance, low-emission zones and bus prioritization. This has been done often through a combination of local road charging, regulations restricting access for more-polluting vehicles, improvement in mass transit, promotion of pedestrian areas, and bus and cycling lanes. For instance, Boston, Paris and Seoul have replaced major roadways with more pedestrian-friendly corridors, and Cape Town is expected to have 160 km of cycling routes by the end of 2017.

To date there has been relatively less attention given to freight transport. Nonetheless, improved efficiency of logistics systems can reduce demand and help shift high-carbon road freight mechanisms to less-emitting alternatives, including rail and water transport. The dominance of the freight sector by commercial actors means that if regulations and price signals are correct, the sector will rapidly adopt new solutions.

Urban freight is a suitable application for rapidly scaling up electric and people-powered mobility, to reduce global and local emissions from “last-mile” goods delivery.  For example, cargo bikes in Germany cities such as Berlin or Hamburg have been delivering express mail for many years, and a hybrid electric inland barge service in Rotterdam reduces fuel consumption by approximately 20 percent.

[See: ‘We managed to kick off a paradigm shift in São Paulo,’ mayor says on leaving office]

Successful development of a common global roadmap for the transport sector will require close coordination with other sectors. The growing importance of non-traditional fuels such as electricity, and in the future possibly hydrogen, calls for close coordination with the energy sector. Better linkages between the global transport and urban development communities — which should extend to urban planning, financing, environmental planning and safety considerations — can result in more-compact cities, which in turn can lower transport demand in rapidly growing urban areas around the world.

The global roadmap will include a series of actions to guide policy, behaviour and technology. These are global in nature, but the manner in which they are deployed will depend on local circumstances. Thus the roadmap must be flexible enough to reflect different conditions in more-developed countries, emerging countries and least-developed countries.

A concerted voice

The Paris Agreement ended a long period of uncertainty about multilateral climate action, and there is now widespread interest across the transport sector to step up implementation. Following the 2015 political agreement on a “well below” 2 degree C target, there is now a need to develop detailed sectoral perspectives on how to meet this ambitious target.

The global transport decarbonization roadmap, first presented at COP 22 and now undergoing development by the PPMC, can help to focus efforts of government and city actors alike to put the transport sector on track to reach a 1.5 degree C goal.

[See: World’s first ‘bike mayor’ to take on cycling in New York]

Fortunately, we know what needs to be done, as there are many examples of safe, clean, efficient and affordable transport solutions supporting sustainable development for all. Good examples include strategies such as vehicle restrictions in Shanghai, bus rapid transit in Mexico City and cycling routes in Cape Town.

The challenge now is to massively scale up these efforts with comprehensive, concerted action on a global scale. If governments are serious about delivering on the Paris Agreement, they need to break with the past and adopt innovative policies to deliver transformational change.

Since COP 22, a number of countries and non-state actors have expressed the need for a global leadership platform in support of more ambitious action on transport and climate change. The global roadmap is a response to the Paris Agreement’s “call to action”, but alongside this conceptual clarity, further leadership is needed to translate these strategies into action from countries, cities and companies.

Thus, the SLoCaT partnership through the PPMC is proposing a new body: a Transport Decarbonization Alliance (TDA). To be launched later this year, the TDA will be composed of countries and other entities committed to ambitious action on transport and climate change. In particular, it will provide political leadership and a louder progressive voice for transport in global climate talks and beyond.

[See: Why Helsinki’s innovative on-demand bus service failed]

To date, such a concerted voice has been missing. But this is of critical importance if the transport sector is going to scale up ambition levels. The combination of strategic direction and leadership will help to ensure that transport is well reflected and integrated in the next steps of the global climate process (including what’s known as the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue) to raise ambition on global climate action.

The TDA could help secure the transformation to a low-carbon transport system in the second half of the century by meeting a series of ambitious emission-reduction milestones in 2020, 2030 and 2050 (the details of which are under development) as part of a broader transition to a net-zero emission economy.

The TDA is to be launched in November, when the next round of global climate talks — COP 23 — take place in Bonn. SLoCaT is working with strategic partners to secure participation from parties at different levels of development.

Through the roadmap and TDA, the transport sector will be well positioned to provide sectoral leadership to help drive economy-wide progress toward Paris Agreement targets, and to ensure that political leadership ultimately results in transformational change.

[See: Meet the Edmonton official leading next year’s landmark conference on climate and cities]

While delivering sustainable urban mobility on a global scale may seem possible only through high-level action, we all can make a difference through our daily work by:

  • Supporting urban design that makes walking and cycling attractive and safe
  • Challenging the passive acceptance of the millions of avoidable deaths and injuries that occur on our streets — killing 500 children every day, among others
  • Supporting the local supply of goods and services
  • Considering the transport demand implications of our policies and projects.
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Cornie Huizenga

Cornie Huizenga is the secretary general of the Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), the largest multi-stakeholder partnership on sustainable, low carbon transport in developing countries. He played a lead role in the development of the Voluntary Commitments on Sustainable Transport at the Rio+20 conference, including the unprecedented USD 175 billion for more sustainable transport by the world’s eight largest multilateral development banks. Through his leadership of the Paris Process on Mobility and Climate (PPMC), Cornie helps to raise the profile of transport in the UNFCCC process and mobilize the sustainable transport community in support of a climate change agreement that can accelerate action on low-carbon transport.

Mark Major

Mark Major is a senior adviser to the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), supporting its work on the U. N. global sustainable development policy process — in particular the UNFCCC process. Prior to joining SLoCaT he was a permanent official of the European Commission based in Brussels, where he worked on a variety of transport-related topics.

Karl Peet

Karl Peet is research director of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT). Karl is currently leading research on various topics with the goal of meeting targets defined by evolving global climate change and sustainable development agendas. Previously, Karl developed recommendations for the Climate and Environment Services Group-Shanghai to help meet sustainable transport demands in China. Prior to that, Karl served at the Chicago Transit Authority, focusing on climate change mitigation and adaptation, bus rapid transit planning, and multimodal and active transport.