The case for decarbonizing transport cannot be clearer: it’s the fastest growing sector of emissions after industry, representing nearly a quarter of CO2 emissions from energy today. It’s also directly tied to economic development, social issues and freedom of movement. But how to get there?
Global leaders and experts from around the world met February 16 to kick off Transforming Transportation 2022, a live, all-virtual conference hosted by WRI and the World Bank focused on reimagining mobility in the context of sustainable development. As the global transport sector continues to struggle with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, there is also increased urgency – and emerging opportunities – to address the climate crisis.
There are two big changes happening at the same time in global transport, said Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, Minister of Transport for France: “the worst economic crisis in public transportation’s history” and one of its fastest technological transformations in the form of electric vehicles (EVs), hydrogen fuels and more.
The boom in electric vehicles over the last year – from sales to new models to government and corporate commitments – has been a bright spot. Annual electric vehicle sales are on track for around 5.6 million units in 2021, 83% higher than in 2020 and 168% higher than in 2019, said Ani Dasgupta, President and CEO of WRI. At COP26, governments and industry representing almost a third of the global market launched a significant commitment in the “declaration on accelerating the transition to 100% zero emission cars and vans,” noted Alok Sharma, President of the COP conference.
This is rapid progress but electric vehicles still represent less than 1% of vehicles today, and, most importantly, even if all vehicles were electrified tomorrow, electrical grids would need to be decarbonized and many transport issues are caused simply by the sheer number of vehicles on the road.
Watch full plenary and technical breakout sessions.
A Systemic Approach
“Can we build on this momentum and reach higher?” asked Dasgupta. He noted three priorities beyond EVs: 1) More compact cities to get people out of cars; 2) Building high-quality public transport systems that get people where they need to go; and 3) Building safe walking and cycling infrastructure. If we don’t fundamentally change how we move people and goods, he said, the world is on its way to over 2 billion cars by 2050 and a 60% increase in transport emissions, which is simply unsustainable – not to mention inequitable.
“We are living in a world where transport actually still leaves many people behind,” said Anna Bjerde, Vice President for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank. Six out of 10 transport users are women, and yet many do not feel safe using public transport services. “We worry about issues such as female labor force participation and we know that transport has a major role to play in women accessing work,” she said.
In the developing world, where much infrastructure is still being built, there is a huge opportunity to do things differently, said Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive Officer, National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog). “Urban form is critical,” he said. “Cities should not grow and develop based on the requirements of cars but based on public transportation systems… And that is, to my mind, the key to inclusivity.”
“There’s a big opportunity, [but] it’s about understanding that we need to have this systemic approach,” said Andrea Meza Murillo, Minister of Environment and Energy for Costa Rica. “We cannot continue working in silos.” She said that the decarbonization of the transport sector in Costa Rica could generate $43 billion in benefits by 2050, almost double the estimated costs of the required investments.
Road safety is one challenge that electrification cannot address alone. “Road crashes claim over 1.35 million lives per year, 93% of them in developing countries,” said Riccardo Puliti, Vice President for Infrastructure at the World Bank.
The Vision Zero Challenge, an initiative by WRI and partners, recognized four Latin American cities that have taken important strides to make their streets safer and more equitable during the pandemic. Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; Mérida, Mexico; and Belo Horizonte, Brazil, have gone beyond commitments to implement concrete actions. These include comprehensive speed management efforts, school zone changes, new low-speed areas and speed-calming infrastructure because speed is the number one risk factor in fatal crashes.
“The cities we are celebrating today have all acknowledged that road traffic fatalities are unacceptable and preventable,” said Zoleka Mandela, Global Road Safety Ambassador for the Zoleka Mandela Foundation and a judge for the Vision Zero Challenge. “There will always be human errors, but we need to ensure that people are not punished with death sentences.”
Annie Petsonk, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, noted that the United States recently passed its largest investment in public transportation in history and that road safety is a key component of the bill. “We have a shockingly high accident and death rate in the United States from vehicle accidents, and we are determined to bring that down,” she said.
“I’ve long described innovation as ‘applied inspiration,’” said Mitch Jackson, Chief Sustainability Officer for FedEx.“It’s not just to come up with concepts and put them on the table… It’s about implementation of those concepts.”
Mayors and ministers from places as diverse as Mexico City and Paris said that solutions will be different from place to place. “What works very well for London or New York won’t necessarily work for Accra,” said Hassan Sulemana Tampuli, Deputy Minister for Transport, Ghana. But a “systems change” approach was a common theme.
Research indicates that governments can achieve significant environmental, economic, social and health benefits by raising the ambition of transport sector commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement, for example. Spending $1 million on EV and public transport jobs can create between two to three times more jobs than road building. London’s congestion charge, a component of London’s finalist submission to the 2020-2021 WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities, has reduced air pollution and carbon emissions, and generated over £1.3 billion over 14 years – revenue that has been used to enhance public transport with significant success in increasing ridership and shrinking private vehicle usage.
“If we want to have a healthy economy, we need to have a healthy environment,” said Costa Rica’s Andrea Meza Murillo.
Indeed, the pandemic has injected the importance of transport into international climate discussions like never before, said Maruxa Cardama, Secretary General for the SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport. However, we are far from seeing a common understanding of the “prevailing deficiencies in funding for transport systems,” she said, as well as widely recognizing public transport’s benefits to the common good.
“I don’t think there’s any way we can meet the decarbonization goals of the Paris Agreement without really focusing on the amount of movement of people and goods,” said Christian Brand, Associate Professor in Transport Energy and Environment at the University of Oxford, who presented research on active mobility. “In future zero-carbon cities, active travel needs to be a priority…and the all-important trip avoidance.”
Bronwen Thornton, Chief Executive Officer for the Walk21 Foundation, noted that the value of safe, well-connected pedestrian infrastructure to well-functioning transport systems has long been ignored. “70% of global trips are actually done by walking,” she said, “but our focus on bigger-scale projects has actually ruled out walking projects [in many places].”
“COVID showed us that we can act fast,” Thornton said. “We can make change quickly, and we can realign our walking infrastructure to suit our needs.”
“While it takes billions of dollars to build public transport, it doesn’t take billions of dollars to redesign streets for walking and cycling,” said Kelly Larson, Program Director for Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative for Global Road Safety. “It just takes a can of paint.”
Schuyler Null is Communications Manager at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Hillary Smith is Communications Specialist at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Sophia Vitello is Communications and Engagement Assistant at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.