TAPAS.network | 6 June 2023 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

A world away from what’s needed

Peter Stonham

ANYONE LOOKING at the graph from the new report by the International Transport Forum, ITF, that looks at the pathway to decarbonisation in transpoort across the world will probably find it rather familiar. The UK equivalent of that yawning gap between aspiration, necessity and reality is something we have covered in TAPAS extensively in recent months, particularly the work of Professor Greg Marsden, who has closely studied the UK’s trajectory towards achieving net zero in transport.

Just as it has become clear there is a big gap between commitments and likely achievements under the UK Department for Transport’s current plans, the ITF’s work shows a serious mismatch between the aggregate current projections and required achievements relating to climate change obligations around the world.

It indicates that individually and collectively, global nations are not getting to grips with the issue. Although the ITF does not point the finger at any particular countries, there is no generally accepted evidence that Britain is either better or worst that either the average among nations, or is even doing particularly badly in relative terms.

Indeed The Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific analysis produced by two research organisations tracking climate action since 2009, presents individual nations’ progress towards the globally accepted Paris Agreement of 2015 and its aim of holding warming well below 2°C, and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.


In its latest update this month it shows no-one as Paris-compatible, many as critically and highly insufficient, and the UK amongst a very few who are at least ‘almost sufficient’.

It all serves to show just how much is required of stepped up international action, the next chance for which will come at COP 28 in December, and ahead of which the Bonn Climate Change Conference (SB58) began this week, designed to prepare decisions for adoption at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates in December.

Building on the many mandates that emerged from COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 and COP 27 in Egypt last year, the Bonn conference will convene the 58th session of the UNFCCC subsidiary bodies, including a large number of discussions on issues of critical future importance.

These issues include the global stocktake, the global goal on adaptation, the just transition to sustainable societies, the mitigation work programme, and the recognition of loss and damage by developing nations, among others.

“For many people around the world, limiting warming of our planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius is a matter of survival. The global stocktake is the opportunity of a generation to correct the course we are on, to design a way forward to tackle climate change with fresh vigour and perspective,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell.

As is now familiar, he said he believed we were now at a tipping point. “We know that rapid change often follows a long gestation period. Goodness knows that the gestation period for climate action has been long enough. We need to bring that tipping point forward.”

green quotations

The ITF report grapples with three core issues: the relationship between transport activity and economic growth; the belief in movement as a fundamental human expectation/right; and the undeliverable practical potential for all transport becoming carbon neutral in the foreseeable future.

This is just the latest opportunity for Parties to demonstrate their commitment to fully implementing all aspects of the Paris Agreement and show that the era of implementation is well underway. The technical phase of the global stocktake will conclude at the Bonn Conference, and mark the start of the political phase which will work towards a strong outcome of the first stocktake at COP28.

The overall global position is arguably even worse than the ostensible gap within the UK’s relatively positive individual position, because the UK has a generally mature transport activity matrix relating to car ownership, extent of personal travel activity and freight movement, whilst many parts of the world are at an earlier stage of their travel and transport development journey, with big increases in climate-damaging activity still on the way.

The ITF report grapples with three core issues: the relationship between transport activity and economic growth; the belief in movement as a fundamental human expectation/right; and the undeliverable practical potential for all transport becoming carbon neutral in the foreseeable future.

As things stand, there is very little indication that economic growth, and transport’s part in achieving it, will not continue to be a fundamental policy driver for most nations; that reductions in personal and commercial movement will be not acceptable to individuals and businesses or society more generally; whilst the possibilities of fulfilling all transport and travel activity with non-damaging technologies is not something that is currently feasible to achieve at all quickly- if ever.

As the ITF report’s background forecasts also put it, international and intercity passenger travel will grow fastest under all scenarios, more than doubling between 2019 and 2050. Urban transport demand will also grow considerably — even 54% under the High Ambition carbon reduction scenario. Meanwhile, freight demand will also grow in all policy scenarios, with international movements accounting for the greatest share of activity, measured in tonne-kilometres. Shifting goods to sustainable modes is much more challenging for longer-distance freight, as it is for international air travel.

Transport in urban areas might even be seen as the easy bit: as a mix of policies increasing the efficiency of the transport system and the sustainability of individual trips could effectively change how people move in cities to a much more sustainable pattern. Denser and more compact urban areas can meanwhile increase the possibilities for a greater focus on public transport and walking and cycling without significantly reducing the number of trips people actually make. Urban deliveries are also comparatively easy to decarbonise. Shifting deliveries to non-motorised modes (e.g. cargo-bikes) or more efficient electric or other alternatively powered vehicles will reduce motorised vehicle-kilometres. Introducing parcel pick-up points will limit delivery movements in cities.

Yet even this will require determined policies to integrate land-use and transport planning to avoid urban sprawl and expand access to sustainable modes.

Two tables in the ITF report relating to urban transport also bring home the substance of what is required to bring transport’s carbon excessive emissions under control, and even the ‘Current Ambition’ scenario assumes certain achievements that are by no means baked into delivery yet, let alone the far more challenging ‘High Ambition’ version.

The Current Ambition policy scenario specification for urban passenger demand and mode choice envisages that during the 2030s carbon pricing will be implemented, with road pricing increasing non-energy-related car-use costs by up to 2.5%, and parking provision declining whilst charges rise by up to 20%. Meanwhile, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure networks increase by 100%, while public transport systems expand by up to 34%, with express or priority lanes comprising up to 14% of bus networks, and public transport fares decreasing by up to 2.5% with the benefit of integrated ticketing. Other expectations are that car ownership decreases by 5.9% and the average private vehicle occupancy rate grows by up to 2.8%, whilst the increase in working from home brought by the pandemic maintains a reduction in commuting, and MaaS-type integrated systems effectively cut fares and increase the attractiveness of public transport, thus boosting shared mobility by up to 3.4%. Speed limits are envisaged to decrease by up to 10%.

To achieve the high ambition outcomes all these figures will have to be higher, for example road pricing increases non-energy-related car-use costs by up to 9%, while parking prices increase by up to 50% and bike and pedestrian infrastructure networks increase by up to 167%, while public transport systems expand by up to 67%. Shared vehicle use would further expand with average private vehicle occupancy rates growing by up to 5.6% and car ownership decreasing by up to 8.4%. The average population density would increase by up to 13.4%.

These urban transport-related implications are of particular interest in the context of parallel discussions just beginning this week at the Second United Nations Habitat Assembly in Nairobi, which is looking at the wider issues relating to how settlement patterns and other supporting resources such as water and sanitation are planned and developed. It illustrates the interconnectivity between the transport carbon footprint and more general issues in economic and social development. Indeed there has been criticism and concern that the transport implications of discussions about climate change and decarbonisation were not clearly grasped at the COP26 and 27 events, although there are expectations that there will be stronger specific focus on transport at the COP28 event in Dubai later this year.

Also clearly deserving of greater focus are the non-national transport carbon consequences of both shipping and aviation, where new kinds of international agreement are going to be needed to set targets and support suitable changes in technology adoption and patterns of activity to complement the nationally-targeted objectives that have been principally concentrated on to date. That is not to say that either switching maritime or aviation energy consumption away from fossil fuels will be a simple task to either plan for or enforce.

In terms of domestic UK transport, a great deal of emphasis has now been placed on a switch to electric road vehicles, where major issues remain in terms of batteries, charging points and electricity distribution, both for private cars, and more significantly, the freight vehicle fleet. As a country with a fairly sophisticated infrastructure system for both roads and power, what the UK may be able to achieve in this direction may not be replicable in less developed countries, indicating a further significant barrier to making the global progress that the ITF report spells out is so clearly necessary.

It is certainly welcome that the ITF has number-crunched the data and modelled in some considerable detail the various consequential outcomes of both policy measures and pathways to feasible technical adoption of the steps needed to get much closer to a genuine reduction in transport’s highly significant carbon footprint. The scale of the challenge has once again been made clear, as has the apparent lack of urgency amongst almost all governments around the world.

In essence, the problem has at its core that demand for passenger and freight transport will continue to grow in the coming decades across all world regions, against all feasible scenarios. Hence the need to reduce the consequences of transport emissions sits alongside a seemingly irresistible pressure for them to naturally increase. And, moreover, the implications of more mobility meaning increased carbon-hungry development sprawl, more car use, longer average trip distances and a lack of sufficient emission reductions by the global vehicle population - both those on the ground and in the air.

It all suggests a future transport landscape that is not even close to being in alignment with the challenges the planet faces.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT870, 6 June 2023.

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