Decarbonizing transport: Building momentum in the run-up to COP26

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A modern tram running through the center of Reims, France. Photo: Jose Hernandez/Shutterstock
Photo: Jose Hernandez/Shutterstock

Transitioning to zero-carbon transport globally is essential to keep climate change in check. Yet five years after the Paris Climate Agreement, transport emissions are still rising. Our current environment is not helping. Low energy prices, economic uncertainty as economies struggle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, competing development priorities, and a complex political economy are deterrents to a significant reduction in CO2 emissions from transport and investments toward climate neutrality.

Amidst this uncertainty, we have recently seen many new announcements on climate change, setting up a new momentum for transport decarbonization. As the host of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), the UK announced a £12 billion ($15.98 billion) Ten-Point Plan to put the UK on a path to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050—with, for example, a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. For European countries, the 700-billion-euro Next Generation E.U. Recovery Plan will be the primary financial vehicle to support the EU Green Deal—with, for example, stricter car emission standards and country targets on EVs and hybrid cars. 

Ahead of COP26, this is an excellent time for transport to kickstart its own “decade of action”—following the  the UN’s approach to support the Sustainable Development Goals—and develop a concrete action plan for greener mobility. The Sustainability Mobility for All initiative (SuM4All) started this conversation just days ago at the Climate Summit. Here is what we heard: 

  1. Fiscal stimulus packages: As part of the efforts to cushion the global pandemic's economic impact, countries have mobilized emergency financing. The stimulus funding in G20 countries and Sub-Saharan African countries averaged 22% and 3% of GDP, respectively. Many see this as an opportunity to fast-track investments in sustainability and push some key policy reforms that had been stalling for a long time (e.g., emissions standards on vehicles). To make this happen, representatives from governments, central banks, development finance institutions, and the private financial sector have come together to form a high-level Advisory Council will establish a set of Principles for Financing the Sustainable Recovery, and will ensure that the relief measures adopted by countries around the world align with the principles of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. In addition to this, the global community will also need to develop a consistent tracking framework to ensure the financial resources allocated to transport are channeled to support the right investments.
  2. Strengthened cross-sector partnership: The future of mobility is a future where solutions will be co-created. As a result, we need to enhance collaboration and cultivate alliances across all sectors. The mobility crisis linked to the global pandemic's economic lockdown might have created new opportunities in some countries. In China, for example, the logistics sector stepped in to ensure people had access to essential services while cities were on lockdown, thus keeping the supply chain running. More potent synergies and systematic cross-sector collaboration beyond the pandemic will accelerate the drive toward decarbonization.
  3. Design transport infrastructure for inclusion. Sustainability is not just about green mobility. It is also about efficiency, safety, and inclusiveness. The promise of the 60-minute or 30-minute city is to design the future of mobility to make it easy for people to get around while improving social cohesion and creating healthier, stronger communities. While this is undoubtedly a great start, that kind of vision mostly applies to more extensive, wealthier cities. To move the needle on green transport, we need a comprehensive vision that leaves no one behind and promotes adequate access for all, including rural and less developed regions. Infrastructure designs for mobility and logistics systems need to ensure that people can connect to opportunities safely, cost-effectively, and with the smallest possible footprint irrespective of their geographical location.
  4. Data use and sharing between the public and private sectors: COVID-19 has changed how we collect and use data in transport. SuM4All’s Global Sustainable Mobility Index benchmarks the performance of countries against the four primary goals of sustainable mobility: safety, green mobility, efficiency, and access. It also identifies a "sustainability gap" by country. Continuous, secure, and ethical data sharing will help create a dynamic and responsive mobility system that can address significant societal and environmental challenges. But the culture of data-sharing requires collaboration between public and private sector stakeholders. Aligning interests across various stakeholders - citizens, governments, businesses, and civil society - could create shared value through the aggregation of data and potentially increasing the concentration of raw data and capabilities for innovation with larger players. Such collaboration could strengthen the coordinated actions needed to steer mobility toward more positive environmental, economic, and social impacts.

No doubt, creating an enabling environment for transport decarbonization and sustainable mobility is not an easy feat. It requires a clear pathway for bold actions and opportunities for key players—policymakers, transport experts, corporate decision-makers, planners, and entrepreneurs— to converge for deep-dive conversations. An example is last week’s En Route to COP26, a high-level virtual event organized by Sustainable Mobility for All (SUM4ALL) with support from the Transport Decarbonisation Alliance (TDA) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) to catalyze action for zero-carbon transport in the run-up to COP26. As partners and stakeholders carry this discussion forward, we must ensure that today's urgent needs are not met at the expense of future generations. The future of mobility is one where transport is reliable, cost-effective, safe, accessible for all, and keeps CO2 emissions in check.

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