In 2022, the use of cars that run on fossil fuels is rising fast in most middle- and low-income countries. People are moving to cities, getting better jobs, becoming more educated. And in wealthier countries, you have fast growth in big cars, SUVs that guzzle fossil-fuel. As economies grow and become more advanced, freight traffic also rises. In even the most developed countries, the transition to vehicles that burn biofuel or use electricity is still too small to make a big dent in pollution. With people and products moving around the globe all the time at faster speeds, pollution from transport has more than doubled since 1970. Transport is responsible for a quarter of global emissions. Road vehicles alone account for 15% of emissions. Transport is the only economic sector in which emissions are actually rising.
To stop global warming, transport is a sector where things really have to change. But how?
Electric transport climate solutions
Electrification is the important step. Getting rid of fossil fuels and replacing them with electricity, because we can produce electricity that’s clean and green. In transport, there are some quick wins you’ll be seeing in the next few years—some of them are already happening.
One aspect of travel that’s already changing—people just have to get used to the idea and give up some of the old ways of doing things—is the realisation that sometimes you just don’t need to travel. That’s a big factor in business travel. Okay, you can’t replace face-to-face contact in some cases. But you save a lot of time and money by videoconferencing, instead of heading off to the airport. And, of course, you cut your corporate carbon footprint. Which is important, in terms of corporate social responsibility.
And what else?
Battery technologies have emerged as one of the keys to decarbonising road transport. The transport sector is, after all, responsible for 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions in your time. Road vehicles alone account for 15% of global carbon emissions. Batteries are key because, in the long-term, they are expected to play a big role in managing the variability of renewable energy—the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Batteries will store electricity during hours of excess production and discharge it when demand is higher.
These things are in development. The European Investment Bank is financing a big factory in Sweden for a company called Northvolt that’s working on batteries that do precisely this. Battery energy density, or the energy stored per kilogram of the battery’s weight, is increasing at an average rate of about 5% to 8% each year.
Now, the battery technology itself is important, obviously. But so is where and how it’s made, and by whom. For batteries to be really effective, they should be made near the factories where vehicles are assembled. That avoids import tariffs, logistics and transport costs, having your capital locked up in containerships, and also something called “security of supply.” That’s what economists say when they mean that what you don’t produce yourself can be used by whoever does produce it to hold you to ransom. (Asian battery makers are in the lead.) And that’s one reason why Europe is so excited by the Northvolt technology.
The battery is a third of the cost of an electric vehicle. So the European Union is pushing research, development and innovation into battery technologies to cover the full battery supply chain. There’s an EU action plan launched in 2017 that aims to build 10 to 20 large battery factories, so that Europe might take a 15% share of global cell manufacturing capacity by 2026.
There is, of course, concern about the minerals used in these batteries. These natural resources are mined in only a few countries and sometimes by workers who labour in poor conditions. The scarcity of these minerals is something recycling should help with. Recycling will reduce the need for new material mining by 20% in 2040 and 40% in 2050.
Transport climate solutions for humans
What else is already happening?
Cities will make it easier to walk or cycle to your destination. The buzzword is micro-mobility. That includes things like electric scooters. You’ll see pedestrians or cyclists take back the streets. How come? When a human driver sees someone stepping out into the street ahead, they might slow down. They might stop. They might swerve and keep going. They might not even notice what’s happening because they’re texting or changing a radio station. The pedestrian knows all this. The pedestrian also knows that some drivers are more aggressive than others. Some drivers might keep going or even speed up, expecting the pedestrian to back off. Because, hey, who wants to be hit by a vehicle that weighs a ton and is travelling at even just 50 kilometres per hour.
With automated cars, the equation is reversed. Think about it—an automated vehicle has cameras and sensors all over it, so that it doesn’t run into anything. If a pedestrian steps out in front of it, the car won’t go through the calculations that a human driver makes. It won’t think, That guy will step back if I don’t slow down. It won’t sound the horn and keep going, because it owns the road. It will stop. Now imagine a busy city like London or Paris with automated vehicles stopping every time a human dodges across the street. Cars in the centre of cities are going to grind to a halt. Which makes it even more important to have good infrastructure for alternative forms of travel.
This kind of technology already exists in Google cars, for example. Within a decade, it’ll be common on your streets.
How to pay for transport climate solutions
Politicians have to understand that if they want their cities to generate less carbon, they have to do something to control it. And that needs to happen before the end of the decade you’re in now.
That’s because even in places like Luxembourg where public transport is free, people still drive their cars around. They’ve got the money to pay for cars, so they drive them, even though they could travel for nothing on the bus. The conclusion: price is not the decisive element in 2022.
But it could be. Overall, cars are too cheap. It might look sensible, then, to make cars more expensive. But that discriminates against people who live in remote areas where there’s little public transport.
One way forward is to control the use of land. If the idea is to get everyone out of their cars and onto public transport, you need to have denser population centres, where it makes sense for people to use public transport and where it makes financial sense to provide it.
Transport climate solutions means sharing
As well as public transport, you’ll move towards collective transport. There are an average of 1.5 people riding around in every car. You’ve seen those long lines of traffic, with just one person sitting alone in their big car. That’s going to be reduced. So is the time in which cars are not used. Car-sharing will mean that you no longer own a car that sits unused for about 23 hours per day. That’s a more efficient use of materials.
Like hydrogen planes for long-haul flights, you’ll also find hydrogen trucks will be used for long-haul freight transport, rather than building trucks with giant electric batteries to power them.
Drones will taxi you around cities in a couple of decades. But there are land-based transport solutions that will come first—solutions that can be implemented right now.
Those solutions are pretty straightforward. In cities, you need trams, underground or metro rail, and buses. Already in your time there are hydrogen buses. They’re operating in France and Latvia.
For longer distances, there’s the railway.
On the electric rails
Rail is already a good technology with a low carbon footprint, even though it’s not particularly innovative. Rail is already 80% to 90% electric. There are hydrogen trains and electric battery trains that will be mainstream in 10 to 20 years. And when everything is electrified, there will of course be competition to use the electricity produced by renewable energy. In that case, rail again looks like a good option, because it uses each unit of energy quite efficiently, compared to other forms of transport.
But rail infrastructure is expensive. Which brings us to the question of money.
The need for investment in this decade is huge. Not just for transport. The European Investment Bank, the EU bank, has committed to supporting €1 trillion of investment in climate action and sustainable environmental projects by 2030. Much of that is from the private sector.
So the innovations we’re talking about in this series—the technologies that recycle your old jeans and turn them into construction materials, for example—are only half the story. For big infrastructure projects like railways, there’s also a need for financial innovation. For new financial products that encourage private investors to feel secure about putting money into things that might otherwise seem too risky for them.
Which brings us back to the role politicians have to play. In a range of transport innovations, there’s a regulatory risk that might dissuade investors from putting their money into new ideas. So there’s a need for new regulations that create stability in these markets…because investors like stability. It makes investments less risky.
If transport regulation seems arcane or even dull to you, remember that in the end it’s designed to get you from A to B quicker and without fuelling climate change. And you’re responsible for those regulations, because you vote for the politicians who create them. So don’t be bored, be involved. Your vote is one area where you can contribute to the kind of future you’d like your grandchildren to have.
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