As global travel shuddered to a halt and towns and cities entered lengthy lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, the planet was at last given the chance to breathe.

Global transport accounted for around half of the 5.8% drop in energy related emissions in 2020 and provided world leaders and society with a brief window into a cleaner world.

But since then, society has woken from its slumber and fumes from cars, trains, planes and ships are polluting the lungs of the planet once again.

Mobility accounts for 57% of global oil demand and worldwide transport activity is set to double by 2050 (even when current reduction policies are accounted for). If it does, with business as usual, the impact from just transport could result in a 16% global rise in emissions compared to 2015 levels.

Indeed, the transition of our transport sector is crucial to solving our global climate emergency and having lived through COVID, we understand now what a global emergency response looks like…Day 10, Transport day at COP26, however, was not it….

Whilst governments and industry came together to agree to continue working on decarbonising the sector, pledges were abundant whilst milestones and implementable actions were lacking.

Shifting away from business as usual will be no easy feat. Reducing travel and maximising reliable public transport systems is the route recommended by the international scientific community. But to achieve this, the world’s cities and countries will have to get a lot better at communicating and coordinating action between themselves.

The mission is clear – lessening emissions from vehicles (both domestic and industrial) as well as from the marine and aviation industry will be paramount. But how will we get there?

Road transport

Road transport is speeding up to a greener future – but developing nations need to be part of the race

There are an estimated 1.4 billion cars worldwide (not to mention other vehicles such as HGVs) and electric cars present a seemingly clear solution to low carbon road transport. Indeed, by 2040 it is expected that 50% of all new cars will be electric – despite this – the world still faces grave issues in decarbonising the transport sector with global transport contributing to 20-30% of global C02 emissions,

But there are a few sticking points that are limiting the potential impact of these electric vehicles on global rising emissions. One major issue is the lack of clarity on the lifecycle emissions of EVs. Whilst EVs don’t directly emit exhaust fumes during their operational life (making them excellent for minimising inner-city pollution) questions remain on the impact of both their manufacturing (most notably their battery units during production, which can be up to 60% more polluting than the production phase of a combustion car) as well as their end-of-life emissions which are highly dependent on our societies improving battery recycling techniques.

Much of the issues in manufacturing are down to the construction of the batteries inside EVs. Batteries use raw materials, most commonly lithium, cobalt and nickel, that have to be mined and smelted. This process has harmful consequences for the environment, with every tonne of lithium extracted from the ground producing an estimated 10-15 tonnes of CO2. AEM chairman Peter Fleet who worked at Ford for 30 years echoed this in his COP26 presentation stating, “all is not perfect with electric vehicles”. The specificity with which he described the emissions from mining was a breath of fresh air.

No doubt, the major advantage with EVs comes from their apparent lack of in-use emissions, however, this is highly dependent on the market in which they are used. If used in renewably-powered grids they can provide significant benefits. A recent International Council on Clean Transportation study estimated they could diminish emissions by a minimum of 66% compared to petrol cars but if used in a country mainly powered by coal, such as China, the emissions reduction potential falls to just 37%.

Even with these uncertainties, EVs are still one of our best bets at decarbonising road transport. A lack of EV manufacturing competition has delayed their falling price with car manufacturers having previously been slow to transition to EVs because of the exorbitant cost of making electric batteries, which account for around a quarter of the manufacturing costs of the entire vehicle. However, by 2022 battery costs should drop below $100 per kilowatt hour (kWh) and kick-start the mass production of EVs worldwide. Currently, brand new electric cars in the UK range from £15,000-£65,000 and are out of reach for most working men and women (with a lack of suitable government funding prolonging this issue).

Change is beginning to happen, but the jury is still out on whether this will be bold enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change. In the last four years, over 100 multinationals have signed up to the EV100 initiative. Businesses that join must make a public commitment to switch their fleet to EVs and/or fund charging points for workers and/or customers. EV100 companies have collectively agreed to switch more than five million vehicles by the end of the decade and COP26 presents the chance for nations to champion that initiative but this is a drop in the ocean of internationally polluting vehicles.

Cash is also key. Developed countries previously agreed that by 2020, they would give $100bn (£72bn) per year to poorer countries to invest in climate change solutions. In 2019, the last year for which data is available, third world countries received just $80bn (£58bn). sending millions of old, polluting petrol and diesel cars to poor nations (100 countries have no vehicle emissions standards), rather than recycling their parts locally. Experts say that 80% of these vehicles fail to meet minimum and environmental standards in exporting countries. Restrictions must be put in place to stop dirty exports and highlights the need for wealthier nations to provide funding for lower income countries to build EV infrastructure and reduce their reliance on cheaper, polluting cars.

Hydrogen presents another potential solution for transport decarbonisation. UK carmaker, Riversimple, has created an electric car fuelled by green hydrogen, that passes through a fuel cell and combines with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, while emitting nothing but water. The car is leased to customers on a subscription basis, with one fixed monthly payment – similar to the cost of running a mid-range hatchback – covering all running costs. Green hydrogen could also fuel buses, which will be central to a green public transport system.

In the lead up to the conference, the scientific community was quick to remind world leaders that reduction is always a priority over recycling. Whilst low carbon vehicles are a great way to travel in a greener fashion, reducing transport altogether should be the main goal. How we structure our cities massively impacts this, with town planning essential in ensuring citizens are able to reach their destinations (both for work and socialising) with government and city-led initiatives required to spur this change. If services are reliable and cheap then, occupancy will surge and demand for cars will slow resulting in a drop in emissions. Opportunities are also vast for developing countries who could build new communities around clean public transport and routes for non-motorised mobility.

What was discussed and agreed at COP26

The UK announced that new heavy goods vehicles sold from 2040 will need to have zero emissions. The UK is one of 15 countries to have signed a memorandum of understanding for zero emission medium and heavy goods vehicles (ZE-MHDVs). The landmark global agreement brings together governments, states, regions, cities, vehicle manufacturers, investors and civil society to commit to working towards 100% zero-emission car and van sales by 2035 in leading markets, and no later than 2040 globally – US, China and Germany who are some of the world’s largest car manufacturers haven’t signed up to the deal.

David Thackery, Marketing Director at TEVVA spoke about how they have all but perfected the medium-duty EV urban truck, with an aim to release models by 2022. He drew attention to the fact that with electrifying vehicles you have to think very specifically about the use and aim of that specific vehicle to make sure the power, range and weight is adapted to its purpose. Whilst HGVs can be used for multiple purposes, when looking at decarbonisation these requirements need to be fulfilled at a more granular level. This will impact how we decarbonise.

Overall, the discussions that focussed on electrifying the motor industry were disappointing. Prior to the conference I was hoping to see specific targets being set and agreed. Where were the targets requesting that X% of motor car parts should be recycled? Where were the industry benchmarks? When is the sale of old motor cars to developing countries going to be reduced? Sadly, the details were clearly missing and we expected more.  Public transport was barely mentioned at all! Whilst in an ideal scenario the world’s governments would have prioritised sustainable long-term investment in public transport, it seems once again that EVs were centre stage.

Public transport was barely mentioned at all! C40 Cities and the International Transport Workers’ Federation called on the governments to prioritise sustainable long-term investment in public transport, however it seems that once again, EVs were centre stage and public transport was side-lined.

“I’m genuinely shocked by the absence of active travel in the COP26 transport discussions. Decarbonising road transport is a key part in tackling the climate crisis. We need fewer motor vehicles and those we do have, need to be cleaner/greener,” Will Norman, the mayor of London’s walking and cycling commissioner, said on Twitter.

Governments must invest in sustainable fuels

Emissions from shipping and aviation are rising and without vast investment, clean fuel will not be adopted quickly enough to have an impact on climate change.

Countries have been slow to address shipping. Although it accounts for just 3% of global C02 emissions, researchers at the European Parliament say it could rise to 17.5% by 2050. EV batteries for cars and planes aren’t powerful enough for ships and so alternative fuels must be pursued. Ammonia and methanol are two potential options, while The International Chamber of Shipping aims to raise £365m for the research and development of clean fuels by proposing a £1.45 levy on every tonne of fuel consumed by ships. Environmental groups worry this may not happen fast enough.

Sustainable fuels could also transform the aviation industry. Biofuel, which is derived from plants or waste, could be used to fuel aircraft in the future. Boeing has already unveiled plans to deliver commercial aircraft capable of using 100% biofuel by 2030, while ZeroAvia believes that it will be able to deliver commercial flights using its zero-emissions aircraft by the end of 2023. The UK government has also pledged £83m in funding towards a project designed to develop hydrogen and fully-electrified aircraft.

However, for these fuels to be adopted fast enough to have an impact on climate change, governments must provide significant funding. As a result of the colossal cost associated with the research and development and then the transition required for the shipping and aviation industries to decarbonise – it seems businesses are waiting for each other to drop the first domino. Clear and robust global targets for these industries are required to coordinate the mass adaptation needed to reach our global decarbonisation goals.

The race against time to halt or at least limit the impact of climate change is inching closer but as we try to decarbonise globally, the transport sector is still not pulling its weight. Whilst the international focus appears to remain on crowd pleasing electric vehicles, other factors are being overlooked.

What was discussed and agreed at COP26

Alignment on green targets for international air freight and shipping is another pressing issue that needs to be addressed. Shipping and aviation targets for United Nations members aren’t currently aligned with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees and are more consistent with warming above three degrees.

On Day 10, we saw another 14 states, which are responsible for more than 40% of global aviation emissions, committing to a new decarbonisation target. Representatives agreed to work together through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to advance actions to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation. In shipping, a coalition of 19 countries including Britain and the US have agreed to create zero emissions shipping trade routes between ports to speed up the decarbonisation of the global maritime industry.

At COP26, we expected leaders to agree on a new set of more ambitious goals and commit to funding that could accelerate the availability and uptake of sustainable fuels. We wanted to see a reduction in the growth of movement of goods and people. We were however left disappointed with The United States setting a lacklustre goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. aviation sector by 2050.

The clock is ticking for the world to reduce C02 emissions and reach net zero by 2050. The transport sector will either be the catalyst that powers earth to a greener future or the vulnerability that eventually suffocates our planet. The long-term pledges we heard at COP26 are on the right track but are still lacking in specific milestones before 2030, which is not wholly different from the position we were in before the conference….and left us wanting more.

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