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Do the IPCC Report Messages on Transport Provide a Strong Rationale for Action?

Andreas Kopp's picture

 Miso Lisanin/World Bank

In April, the preeminent scientific body known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the contribution of Working Group III to the 5th Assessment Report on climate change with a focus on climate change mitigation, including transport and other sectoral policies. What is new for transport since the 4th Assessment Report was released seven years ago? 
Quite a bit, it turns out. The 4th IPCC report strongly focused on fuel and vehicle technology substitution. Deep cuts in emissions would mainly be brought about by a switch from gasoline to biofuels and fuel cell cars. The 5th report’s messages are different and more in tune with the growing consensus around the need for new mobility patterns and a change in transport user behaviors: “When developing low-carbon transport systems, behavioral change and infrastructure investments are often as important as developing more efficient vehicle technologies and using low-carbon fuels,” say the authors of chapter 8 on transport. This is progress in my view, and the emphasis on different modes of transport (besides individual cars) is very much in line with the recent World Bank flagship report Turning the Right Corner
But how do we get there?

This is where I wish the IPCC report could be stronger. “Co-benefits” associated with non-motorized and transit systems are mentioned in the report – including “improved access and mobility, better health and safety, greater energy security, and cost and time savings” – but because the report’s mandate is to focus on climate change, those benefits are understandably treated as peripheral to greenhouse gas reduction policies. For transport policy makers however, those co-benefits are not side-dishes – they are the meat of the argument. In my view, reducing the local costs of transport (congestion, pollution, accidents) will motivate transport change and achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions far more effectively than climate-centric policies or electric cars ever will. 

Consider the case of Sao Paolo, where “traffic jams alone were estimated to cost $17.8 billion in 2012,” according to a recent World Bank story about incentive programs that are having an impact on the commuting behavior of car owners.  Or take a look at the relative costs and benefits assigned to congestion and emissions. I find the research conducted by Parry, Walls and Harrington (2007), in the Washington, D.C. area very telling: according to them, the costs of traffic congestion are 108 cents per gallon, the health costs of local air pollution 42 cents, the road safety costs are 63 cents, while the greenhouse gas damage costs are estimated to be 6 cents per gallon (with a carbon price of $50 per ton of CO2).  Fiscal incentives that take all those costs into account could create demand for public transport much faster than the price of carbon alone.  

The IPCC report acknowledges the direct and indirect benefits of sustainable transport, but recognizes that “the quantification of co-benefits and the associated welfare effects still need accurate measurement.” This is an urgent item, indeed, for the climate mitigation research community if policy advice is to provide a strong rationale for action.

Transport strategies should start by addressing local problems for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to gain real traction. Countries that adopt safe, clean and affordable transport solutions will reap the benefit twice: in the form of easier access to jobs, better air quality and a drop in road fatalities in the short term; and later on by being more competitive than developed countries burdened by carbon-intensive transport infrastructure for which they will continue to pay a high price.


Submitted by O Knight on

I couldn't agree more. And the societal and emissions benefits go well beyond the transport sector. Suburban development is more energy intensive by default (lots of single-storey family homes to heat/cool) and leads to a disbursement of economic activity - meaning yet more driving, more concrete pouring, and a larger footprint. It also results in much higher sensitivity to future fuel price rises, which could potentially make some areas economic dead-zones if wages are not able to cover transport costs under much higher oil prices.

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