Revolutionary changes in transportation could slow global warming

All over the world, revolutionary changes are taking place in the field of transportation. There are more electric vehicles on the road, people are benefiting from sharing mobility services, such as Uber and Lyft, and the increase in telecommuting during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people think about commuting.

Transportation is a growing source of global emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, accounting for 23% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in 2019 and 29% of all US greenhouse gas emissions

The systemic changes underway in the transport sector could begin to lower that emissions footprint. But will they reduce emissions enough?

In a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on April 4, 2022, scientists examined the latest research on efforts to mitigate climate change. The report concludes that falling costs for renewable energy and batteries for electric vehicles, in addition to policy changes, have slowed the growth of climate change over the past decade, but that deep, immediate budget cuts are necessary. Emissions will need to peak by 2025 to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a target of the Paris Agreement, the report said.

Costs for key renewable energy and EV batteries are falling and adoption of these technologies is increasing. [Image: IPCC Sixth Assessment Report]The transportation chapter, to which I contributed, looked at transportation transformations – some just getting started and others expanding – that, in the most aggressive scenarios, could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 80% to 90% of the world’s emissions by 2050. current level could be reduced. That kind of drastic reduction would require a major, rapid rethink of how people move around the world.

The future of EVs

All-electric vehicles have grown tremendously since the Tesla Roadster and Nissan Leaf came on the market just over a decade ago, following the popularity of hybrids.

In 2021 alone, sales of electric passenger cars, including plug-in hybrids, doubled worldwide to 6.6 million, about 9% of all car sales that year.

An important aspect to remember about electrifying the transportation system is that the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ultimately depends on how clean the electricity grid is. For example, China aims to have 20% of its vehicles electric by 2025, but its electricity grid still relies heavily on coal.

With the global trends towards more sustainable generation, these vehicles will be linked with fewer carbon emissions over time. There are also many developing and potentially promising side benefits of electromobility in combination with the electricity system. The batteries in electric vehicles have the potential to act as grid storage devices, which can help stabilize the intermittent presence of renewables in the energy sector, among many other benefits.

Other transport areas are more difficult to electrify. Larger and heavier vehicles are generally not as conducive to electrification as the size and weight of the batteries required quickly become untenable.

For some heavy trucks, ships and aircraft, alternative fuels such as hydrogen, advanced biofuels and synthetic fuels are being explored as replacements for fossil fuels. Most are not yet economically viable, and significant advances in technology are still needed to ensure they are decarbonised or decarbonised.

Other ways to reduce transport emissions

While new fuel and vehicle technologies are often highlighted as solutions to decarbonisation, behavioral and other systemic changes will also be needed to drastically reduce GHG emissions from this sector. We are already in the midst of these changes.

Telecommuting: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the explosion of telecommuting and video conferencing has reduced travel, and with it emissions associated with commuting. While some of that will recover, telecommuting is likely to continue for many sectors of the economy.

Shared mobility: Some shared mobility options, such as bike and scooter sharing programs, can allow more people to get out of vehicles completely.

Car-sharing and on-demand services like Uber and Lyft also have the potential to reduce emissions if they use highly efficient or zero-emission vehicles, or if their services lean more towards carpooling, where each driver picks up multiple passengers. Unfortunately, there is great uncertainty about the impact of these services. They can also increase vehicle use and thus greenhouse gas emissions.

New policies, such as the California Clean Miles Standard, are helping companies like Uber and Lyft to use cleaner vehicles and increase their passenger load, although it remains to be seen whether other regions will adopt similar policies.

Cities suitable for public transport: Another system change involves urban planning and design. Transport in urban areas is responsible for about 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Efficient urban planning and land use can reduce the demand for travel and shift modes from cars to public transport, through strategies that avoid urban sprawl and discourage personal cars. These improvements not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but can also reduce congestion, air pollution and noise while improving the safety of transportation systems.

How do these developments translate into lower emissions?

Much of the uncertainty about the extent to which technological changes and other systemic shifts in transportation affect global warming are related to the speed of the transition.

The new IPCC report lists several possible scenarios for how much improvements in transportation can reduce emissions. On average, the scenarios indicate that the carbon intensity of the transport sector should decrease by about 50% by 2050 and by as much as 91% by 2100 in combination with a cleaner electricity grid to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). target for global warming.

These declines would require a complete reversal of current trends of increasing emissions in the transportation sector, but recent advancements in transportation offer many opportunities to meet this challenge.

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