Transportation: A crucial piece of the climate puzzle

By Liana Barcia 07 December 2015

How big a role does sustainable transportation play in the fight against global warming? Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

As a necessary element of most economic activities, transportation has always been crucial to inclusive growth and poverty eradication. And as markets expand and cities and countries develop more rapidly than ever before, setting things right in the sector is an integral part of solving the climate problem.

Today, the transport sector represents 23 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions — second only to the energy sector. Moreover, Asia’s speedy growth — which has spurred a rise in both incomes and vehicle ownership — puts it at the center of the climate conundrum, with the continent’s vehicle fleet and emissions expected to double by 2024.

Climate change mitigation efforts have traditionally been more focused on energy and power generation — from conservation and efficiency to switching from fossil fuels to low-carbon, renewable sources. And while clean energy is undeniably a huge component of climate change mitigation — and one that benefits the transport sector as well — will the world’s leaders strive to make the same progress for clean transportation?

“For any climate deal to succeed, it will need to broaden its focus from energy to address all the main sources of emissions,” Tyrrell Duncan, technical adviser for transport at the Asian Development Bank, told Devex. “The climate deal must provide the needed financial and technical backing for low-carbon transport.”

With the world’s attention on the Paris climate change conference, or COP21, sustainable transport experts, stakeholders and advocates are hoping for agreement on a clear climate framework that “empowers the transport sector to take action.”

Cause for optimism

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“When we say ‘empowers the transport sector to take action,’ that means that with respect to the [Intended Nationally Determined Contributions], we see that there is a willingness from countries to take the next step now and come up with detailed implementation plans,” Cornie Huizenga, secretary general of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, or SLOCAT, told Devex.

INDCs, submitted ahead of COP21, are pledges that publicly outline countries’ post-2020 climate actions. These country commitments will largely determine how on-track the world will be toward a low-carbon, climate-resilient future.

Huizenga shared that those in the transport sector are much more optimistic about the outcome of Paris than they were about the outcome of the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen. This is because national governments, through the INDCs, have started to address the transport sector specifically in their policies. Previously, governments did not take a sectoral approach to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“We feel that the INDC process has been a great accelerator of action on transport,” said Huizenga. “In the opening speeches of the world leaders, we had something like eight or nine countries who actually made specific reference to action on sustainable transport … So we feel that that shows that countries are starting to internalize the need for action on transport when they talk about mitigation. And we see that they are actually coming up with quite detailed policies.”

The same cannot be said for climate change adaptation efforts, however, which do not typically get the same funding and attention as mitigation.

In addition to more detailed plans from national governments, nonstate actors and organizations are also showing more support for the sector, while businesses are exhibiting a heightened interest in sustainable mobility as a part of their business models. In the lead-up to COP21, SLOCAT, in partnership with the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment of the Netherlands, launched the 80 Days Campaign on Climate Action in the Transport Sector — which showcased practical, real world transport and climate change solutions provided by businesses and other organizations.

“We think that climate change is becoming integrated into transport policies and vice versa,” said Huizenga. “I would say that the transport sector has used the time between Copenhagen and Paris quite productively.”

The game plan

Mitigating climate change in the transport sector generally relies on the “avoid-shift-improve” approach. “Avoid” means cutting down on the need to travel, either through the creation of cluster communities that already hold different types of economic activity and require less mobility; “shift” involves switching to more energy efficient modes, routes or schemes; and “improve” refers to the development of more advanced, energy efficient technology and better vehicle standards, inspection and enforcement.

But mainstreaming climate change into urban transport in the developing world will first and foremost require massive investments in mass transit. While roads certainly enable economic activity, efficient, sustainable transport systems are heavily reliant on more sustainable, low carbon modes — such as railways and inland water transport.

Metro systems can come with a hefty price tag of up to $250 million per kilometer, but there are other low carbon transportation solutions that are more affordable and relatively easier to set up. Bus rapid transit systems, for example, cost about $5 million to $10 million per kilometer to build.

“Cities should start to see the development of mass transit corridors as a strategic opportunity for renewing and modernizing whole city districts in partnership between the public and private sectors,” said ADB’s Duncan. “When mass transit corridors are designed, it is relatively easy to also include high quality pedestrian and cycling facilities, and provide greenways and environmental restoration along the alignment.”

A 2014 study jointly published by the Institute for Transport and Development Policy and the University of California, Davis estimates carbon emissions of BRT passengers to be about a quarter of the emissions of private vehicles. And if the world expands public transportation, walking and cycling in cities, there could be a 40 percent reduction of urban passenger transport emissions — as well as more than $100 trillion in public and private savings.

In response to the sector’s conditions, ADB has modified its transport lending — shifting its focus from road building to sustainable, low carbon transport. ADB also led the $175 billion sustainable transport pledge made by eight multilateral development banks at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012. Just last week, the same MDBs committed to accelerating their climate mitigation and adaptation efforts even further.

 A smarter, cleaner transport future

The economic growth expected in the coming years will, of course, also be accompanied by an increase in the amount of transport needed to support it. But it is critical — now more than ever — for these modes of transportation to be cleaner, more efficient, and more sustainable.

“Generally we say that transport emissions in 2030 should be at the same level as in 2010,” said Huizenga.

Investing in sustainable, low carbon mass transit will also quell the traffic congestion problems facing many of the world’s developing cities and will, in effect, hit two birds with one stone.

“The problems of urban traffic congestion and air pollution are already causing people to demand change in their transport systems,” said Duncan. “Across the Asia-Pacific region, national and city governments are starting to see that the solution lies in reducing reliance on private vehicles and instead developing convenient, affordable mass transit and making cities attractive and safe for walking and biking. These solutions will have the important co-benefit of also having much lower carbon emissions.”

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

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Liana Barcia

Liana is a Manila-based reporter at Devex focusing on education, development finance and public-private partnerships and contributing a wide range of content featured in the Development Insider, Money Matters and Doing Good newsletters. She draws from her experience in business reporting and advertising to generate coverage that is engaging, insightful and relevant to the Devex community.


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