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Fossil Fuels

Moving toward green mobility: three countries, three different paths

Nancy Vandycke's picture
A local bus in Luxembourg. Photo: Fränz Bous/Flickr
As discussions concluded at COP24, countries still struggle to translate their climate commitments into effective and socially acceptable actions. This sense of stagnation is particularly evident in transport. With 23% of energy-related GHG emissions coming from the sector, transitioning to greener mobility will be crucial to the overall success of the climate agenda. Yet the world remains largely reliant on fossil fuels to move people and goods from A to B. As shown in Sustainable Mobility for All’s Global Roadmap of Action, there are multiple policy options that could help countries move the needle on green mobility, each with their own fiscal and political costs. To illustrate this, let’s look at three countries that did take concrete measures to cut carbon emissions from transport but opted for three different options: France, Luxembourg, and Norway.
 
What these countries have in common
 
These three countries all have a high level of income, which means the majority of their residents can afford to buy and own a car. The governments of these countries have also invested heavily into road and rail systems—including France’s transformative high-speed railway network. This effort has significantly increased the number of people who have access to fast and reliable transport, and helped bridge the social divide between urban and rural areas.
 
But “universal access” is only one of the four policy goals to achieve sustainable mobility: efficiency, safety, and green mobility are equally important.  Now that the infrastructure is in place, and carbon-intensive cars and trucks are on the roads, the challenge for policy-makers is to figure out how we can reach these three other goals in a world where individual mobility has become a new “social right”.  In other words, which policies will be most effective for reducing the environmental footprint of the current mobility system (GHG emissions, noise, and air pollution)?

Motorization and its discontents

Roger Gorham's picture
Photo: Sarah Farat/World Bank
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  While visiting the World Bank library the other day, I was struck by how many development publications featured pictures of motor vehicles on their covers, even though most of them covered topics that had little to do with transport.  The setting and tone of the pictures varied – sometimes they showed a lone car on a rural highway, sometimes congested vehicles in urban traffic, and sometimes a car displayed proudly as a status symbol – but the prevalence of motorized vehicles as a visual metaphor for development was unmistakable to me: in the public imagination, consciously or otherwise, many people associate development with more use of motorized vehicles.

Indeed, motorization – the process of adopting and using motor vehicles as a core part of economic and daily life – is closely linked with other dimensions of development such as urbanization and industrialization.

Motorization, however, is a double-edged sword.

For many households, being able to afford their own vehicle is often perceived as the key to accessing more jobs, more services, more opportunities—not to mention a status symbol. Likewise, vehicles can unlock possibilities for firms and individual entrepreneurs such as the young man from Uganda pictured on the right, proudly showing off his brand new boda boda (motorcycle taxi). 

But motorization also comes with a serious downside, in terms of challenges that many governments have difficulty managing.  Motor vehicles can undermine the livability of cities by cluttering up roads and open spaces—the scene of chaos and gridlock in the picture below, from Accra, is a telling example. In addition, vehicles create significant safety hazards for occupants and bystanders alike… in many developing countries, road deaths have effectively reached epidemic proportions. From an environmental standpoint, motorized transport is, of course, a major contributor to urban air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Lastly, motorization contributes to countries' hard currency challenges by exacerbating their long-term demand for petroleum products.

Given these challenges, how are developing countries going to align their motorization trajectories with their development goals?  What should the World Bank advise our clients about how to manage this process?