Earth Day 2020: What will it take to plug the world’s tail pipe?

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Young man on a bicycle waiting at a road junction in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: Sarah Farhat/World Bank
Young man on a bicycle waiting at a road junction in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: Sarah Farhat/World Bank

From responding to COVID-19 to promoting inclusive economic growth, transport is key to addressing global issues, but an important challenge of the sector is its considerable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Often, transport’s contribution to global warming is seen as intractable or merely secondary to other major emitters, such as energy. Yet, more than 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the sector, as opposed to 57 percent from the rest of energy-related sources, and this will get worse by 2030 as freight volumes expand by 70 percent and 1.2 billion cars double the global fleet.

Decarbonizing transport and increasing its resilience require a long-term perspective, but COVID-19 has brought immediate challenges. In fact, the pandemic resulted in a marked reduction in emissions, but for the worst possible reasons: economies grinding to a halt, people getting ill, and the poor facing shortages of food and medicine. Emissions may bounce back quickly after the expected recession, mirroring what happened after the 2008 financial crisis, when global CO2 emissions grew by 5.9 percent in 2010, completely offsetting the 1.4 percent decrease in 2009. Continued low oil prices could further amplify this surge and shift the focus away from costlier green investments.

There are many technological and policy avenues to advance the green transport agenda. For instance, more effective and universal public transportation is a major part of the solution. Any path forward must ensure that decarbonization does not come at the expense of the people who most depend on safe, accessible, efficient and sustainable mobility in developing countries.

Transport’s emission problem is not mode-specific: most emissions come from road transport, such as trucks and cars, but maritime and aviation also account for respectively 11 and 10 percent of total sector emissions. Adopting a data-driven “system-wide” approach is essential to change the sector’s climate profile. To do this, we must move from the traditional investment focus to addressing the policy, regulation and institutional challenges that shape long-term transport demand in different areas, especially public transportation. Bringing in private sector financing and innovation would also help establish new and sustainable business models.

Quick gains are possible by better regulating the exports of used vehicles to developing countries. Because of their high average age, obsolete or worn-out equipment and a lack of inspection capacity in recipient countries, these imports end up greatly contributing to road deaths, GHG emissions and other pollutants, especially in Africa.

Developed and developing countries could commit, on the one hand, not to export vehicles that do not meet national climate and safety standards, and, on the other hand, prohibit imports of non-complying vehicles. In general, reducing the age of fleets and using existing fuel-efficient technologies could cut the average vehicle fuel consumption by 50 percent, with major impacts on emissions and street-level pollution.

Another promising area is electric mobility, especially to replace diesel and gasoline in public transportation systems. Targets set by governments around the world currently add up to more than 30 million electric vehicles by 2025, from a current base of around 2 million. While more research is needed to confirm the climate sustainability and economic aspects of e-mobility’s entire supply chain, the ongoing transition is already increasing pressure for clean energy generation to power fleets.

International finance institutions such as the World Bank must set the example by making it possible for countries to invest in low-carbon mass transportation and non-motorized modes, such as walking and cycling, that require appropriate infrastructure. In Bangalore, the Bank supported India’s first Intelligent Public Transport and Public Bike Sharing systems, and in Bogotá, Lima and Quito, new metro lines will take thousands of cars off the streets.

As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day and prepare to rebuild the world’s transport sectors in the aftermath of COVID-19, decarbonization should be a top consideration. The tools are there to move towards cleaner transport that also promotes green economic growth, jobs, opportunities for the poor, and better infrastructure services for all.

 

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