Five current questions about decarbonisation of transport

As an EV charging analyst, you can spend your days/weeks/months burrowed away in the intricacies of your sector without getting a wider view of the landscape. My work at Delta-EE certainly offers me that wider perspective from the energy transition, but what about that of transport specifically? 

In the race to Net Zero (phrase of the year 2021) I wanted to get up to speed on how policymakers are going about decarbonising transport. I joined the world of specialist practitioners on this topic at last week’s “En Route to COP26” conference. Below are five questions I took from the conference that are going to be key to transport decarbonisation in 2021.

How do we fill the policy gap? 

A key acronym in the climate world is the NDC. It stands for Nationally Determined Contributions and these are the commitments each of the Parties (individual or clusters of countries) of the Paris Agreement must make to mitigating and adapting to climate. More information on this is available on the UNFCCC website

What was committed? 166 NDCs were first submitted in 2015, representing commitments from 193 countries. Policymakers had the freedom to decide what to mention and what to commit to.

Of these 166, 76% emphasised action on transport emissions yet only 8% included any target to reduce transport emissions. This is the policy gap.

Much of the high-level dialogue of the conference was focused on really pushing for enhanced commitment. Ahead of COP26, we are going to see these NDCs updated. The latest news comes from the hosts, the UK Government, targeting a 68% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels, by 2030. We expect to see the Decarbonisation of Transport plan to follow this in the new year.

How can we communicate transport decarbonisation strategy? 

Next acronym: ASI. Short for ‘Avoid. Shift. Improve.’. No single session at the conference would have been complete without the reference to that framework for reducing emissions. 

This is the neatest summary for all strategies for reducing emissions from transport, something I found lacking when studying this at university. It’s really reassuring to hear key stakeholders agreeing on and applying a common language. 

Textbook graphic explaining ASI. Source: GIZ

Where does eMobility fit into this? Switching a petrol car for an electric one would be an ‘Improve’ solution. Non-car-based eMobility would likely be considered Shift (e.g e-bike journeys instead of car). Most 2015 NDCs that included transport actions focused on ‘Improve’ strategies. If this appetite for ‘Improve’ strategies continues, this may be a signal of greater focus on EV transition as a preferred low hanging fruit option for many economies.

Expect to see this ASI framework to be used to promote decarbonisation of transport widely.

How can we handle governance?  

One poll stuck out to me during the conference: 

A menti poll from one of the interactive sessions

We were asked to rank these two options out of 10. On the graph above you can see that governance ranked much higher than technical as a challenge, many people appearing to score it a maximum level of importance. 

Why did this stick out? It is evidence that shows the technical challenges are now being overcome, largely thanks to the gains made by those engineering eMobility over the past five years. I believe this poll would have received a very different response at the time of the Copenhagen COP (2009) or even that of Paris (2015). 

So, what is the governance challenge? Throughout the conference, reference was made to the need for restructuring or upgrading organisations to enable new ambitions, policies and infrastructures to be imagined and then realized.

Why is the challenge especially felt now? This is where the COVID crisis was most referenced. The combined stretched budgets, piling debt and a diversion of priority makes it almost impossible for authorities to allocate the capacity to new projects.

Capacity-building is going to be key for the private sector just as much as public authorities who struggle to find the skills and resource to carry out what they want to.

How do we bring joy to the world? 

For those focused on passenger travel, there was a keenness to learn from our experiences of this year through actions taken to slow the coronavirus pandemic. Don’t waste a crisis, right? 

From an ASI lens, significant travel restrictions world-wide have led to wide uptake of Avoid and Shift solutions, such as home-working and local walking. 

The message of the vulnerability of our collective public health as well as our individual mental and physical health has been shared widely. Sustainable transport practitioners want to harness that health and wellbeing message to ensure more focus is put onto active transport. The benefits of being active outweigh the negatives of exposure to air pollution. 

But, if we are to encourage people to cycle and walk, we need to do a lot more than say how great it is for our health. We need to re-engage people with the joy of a sustainable transport solution: something people want to do, not should do.  

That all makes sense, but joy is a significant barrier too. So much enjoyment is taken from high hydrocarbon transport that converting it into cleaner, better alternatives will be a key challenge for the coming decade(s).

Will freight catch up?

The final takeaway I wanted to highlight was a really positive message regarding freight. Compared to the discussions at Paris in 2015, there is a common feeling that this is no longer a necessary evil with a few incrementally improving solutions.

Road transport is set for a big shift next year. More and more the conversation moves towards zero emission logistics solutions on the road. Urban logistics (last mile) seems to be set in stone to be battery electric, but the conversations on the medium and heavy vehicles seemed to be exceedingly encouraging some form of electrified solution too. 

One key opportunity is existing capacity for rail freight, using existing infrastructure. Rail freight is commonly in decline but in many countries there is ambition for growth. And if the future of transport is electric, rail is already at about 50% electric world-wide. As one speaker said “the electric truck is already here, it’s called a train.”

The campaign to watch out for is a further 30% by 2030 campaign. As launched by the Minister for the Environment of the Netherlands, Stientje van Veldhoven, an MoU is circulating among governments to commit to zero emission freight ambitions. If successful, this could bring forward current forecasts for electrified heavy vehicles by five or ten years. 

Lots more for me to digest, but I will stop there. A huge thank you to all the organisations passionately pushing for the decarbonisation of transport ahead of the COP26 in Glasgow.

One response to “Five current questions about decarbonisation of transport”

  1. Questions on decarbonisation of transport is a good thing. Thank you 😊

Leave a Reply