Transport offers many benefits in terms of freedom, independent mobility and accessibility. Yet this comes at a cost such as air polluting emissions which contribute to local air pollution and climate change.
There are two key challenges that require the reduction of oil use within transport and resulting carbon dioxide emissions to be kept to an absolute minimum. Firstly, transport is extremely dependent on oil and there is a likelihood that there will be not be much oil left in 2050 compared to today. Secondly, climate change rises important issues around re-engineering transport systems so that they are less vulnerable to the damaging consequences of climate change and can play a full role in reducing greenhouse gases.
A number of studies have attempted to look at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector. These include the OECD Environmentally Sustainable Transport study(2002), Visioning and Backcasting for UK Transport Policy study (2007) and the Campaign for Better Transport study on a Low Carbon UK Transport Policy (2008).
A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) has outlined how a phased programme of technological, financial and behavioural changes could secure the potential cuts in carbon dioxide emissions compared to a business-as-usual approach:
• 100 per cent in road transport (cars and lorries)
• 100 per cent in rail transport
• 56 per cent in aviation
• 49 per cent in shipping
Under this programme road transport will be completely carbon neutral by 2050 due to a combination of reduced demand (approximately 75 per cent from spatial, fiscal and behavioural measures), and a whole-scale shift in technology to plug-in electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells, both of which will utilise decarbonised UK electricity supply.
Clearly, a carbon neutral electricity supply would be much more likely to be able to meet the increased needs of road transport sector entirely composed of plug-in electric vehicles and/or hydrogen cells. The measure causing the greatest reduction in demand is the annual increase in fuel costs due to the re-introduction of a fuel price escalator.
With regard to rail, all passenger and freight will be powered by 100 per cent electricity that is carbon neutral.
Carbon dioxide emissions of from aviation will be reduced by 59 per cent, which represents a significant progress in bringing aviation in line with the implications of the UK national commitment to an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 compared to 1990. However, the scale of the reduction is still not enough despite the applications of measures.
It is clear that a combination of measures to reduce demand such as air increases, no additional runways, modal shift to railways (High Speed Train) and video substitution would deliver a considerably greater reduction than could be achieved by advances in aircraft technology and air traffic management alone. It follows that a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from aviation of this scale could not be delivered by policy that encouraged technological solutions alone whist allowing demand to continue to grow.
Carbon dioxide emissions from shipping will be reduced by 49 per cent through changes in ship size, routing, fuel, speed and a number of other promising technologies have been assumed.
Although road and rail transport could both achieve the zero carbon dioxide emissions target, emissions from aviation and shipping are problematic. Although a 76 per cent reduction is a considerable achievement it still falls short of a zero carbon target. To improve on this figure carbon dioxide reduction would require more radical interventions or technological innovations for these two sectors than those envisaged in the SEI study. This would require fundamental changes in globalisation and patterns of international trade and mobility if aviation and shipping is to make a larger contribution to the zero carbon target.
The decarbonisation of the road and rail sector is dependent on the decarbonisation of the electricity supply system. However, if the electrical power sector decarbonisation is less than 100 per cent by 2050 carbon dioxide emissions from road and rail transport will be substantially higher.
The SEI study has shown that the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions form the UK transport sector is much greater than anyone previously thought and that reductions in emissions go hand in hand with improvements in air quality, health and economic success.
The policy recommendations include a number of radical but achievable measures including:
Spatial planning to create neighbourhoods and communities where it is possible to reach destinations on foot or by bicycle and public transport
New approaches to the regionalisation of production and consumption to bring about reductions in road freight
Increases in the cost of transport to implement the so-called “polluter pays principle”
Full de-carbonisation of the UK electricity supply system (as envisaged by the Climate Change Committee)
Full conversion of all cars to Plug In Electric Vehicles or Hydrogen Fuel Cells utilising de-carbonised electricity.
A zero carbon transport future will provide better access for more people to more things this is currently is the case. Traffic congestion and time wasted in traffic jams will be a thing of he past and the time currently wasted in commuter trips will be spent on rewarding and enriching activities.
The study has set out a vision of a zero carbon future and how to achieve it. What we need now is to convince decision-makers to move boldly and decisively to make this vision for UK transport a reality.
© Gary Haq 2010
Photo credits: Shutterstock