Aerial Revolution: Electrifying Air Travel is on the Horizon

With the finish line now visible in the race for commercial electric flight, Selwyn Parker takes a bird’s-eye view of the battery-powered flyers landing (very!) soon at a place near you

Cabbie in a cockpit: Virgin Atlantic’s VA-X4 soars over London | Image: Vertical Aerospace

The frontrunners in the race for commercial, electrically powered flight could hardly be more different. Vertical Aerospace’s VA-X4 is a bulbous-nosed prop-driven five-seater, including the pilot. Germany’s fish-shaped Lilium is a sleek swivel-winged design that distributes its six passengers front to back. China’s e-Hang two-seater looks like a helicopter cabin with wings mounted on two booms. And Eviation’s Alice, the fastest of the current designs, is a more normal-looking nine-passenger aircraft.

Despite the radical variation in design, all these aircraft share something in common. They will be much quieter than any of today’s aircraft. They are surprisingly quick, varying between 150 and 460 km/h. And they are just around the corner; most of these companies expect to start selling tickets around the middle of the decade.

The future is (nearly) now: Germany’s Lilium show off a real-life demo

In a few short years, commercial electrical flight has gone from dream to reality. Right now, regulators in Japan, Europe, the UK, and the US are putting several designs through the hoops. Virgin Atlantic is confident enough to have ordered a fleet of VA-X4s. Sweden’s Heart Aerospace says it has pre-sold no less than 200 of its ES-19s, a 19-passenger aircraft with a range of 300 km, for a planned debut in 2026. And DHL Express has ordered 12 Alices for delivery in about three years.

There are deep pockets involved. Rolls-Royce has built the electric power train in the VA-X4 and is investing in the P-Volt, a commuter aircraft carrying up to nine passengers that is due to take off commercially in 2026.

Handy helipad: eVTOLs’ manoeuvrability allows them to use existing helicopter infrastructure | Image: Vertical Aerospace

Down on terra firma, a new infrastructure is emerging in the form of “vertiports” to accommodate urban taxis in the form of eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing). Some German airports, including Munich, are preparing for the Lilium Jet. About 25 vertiports are planned in the UK, including one at London Heathrow, with 2025 set as a likely start date. Rome airport is readying for VoloCity’s e-copters. And airports in the US expect to have vertiports ready in about three years, just in time for the anticipated arrival of electric flight. An eVTOL can also use existing helipads, of which there are thousands around the world.

Time-saver

Electric flight promises to be a different experience for passengers. First, it will be much quieter in the cabin at cruising speed, probably around 45 decibels, which is roughly as loud as air conditioning or a washing machine. If you are in an eVTOL, flight times for short hops of around 160 km should be faster than conventional aircraft because it avoids taxiing up and down runways. Also, vertiports are expected to sprout up in such numbers they will be located much closer to home. Although it’s still decades away, life near a busy airport will become much quieter as the roar of jet aircraft could gradually be eliminated by electric flight.

But will electric flight be exclusively for the wealthy? Not according to the industry, which predicts ticket prices at least comparable with the cost of driving a car over an equivalent distance, bringing it within the pocket of most people. For instance, Lilium estimates an average cost of USD 2.25 per passenger mile in its six-passenger eVTOL, while US-based Jaunt Air Mobility predicts about USD 3 per mile for its electric helicopters, roughly equivalent to a ride in an up-market Uber.

Electric aircraft don’t offer a silver bullet to clean up the skies, not least because the current commercial fleet will massively outnumber them for decades to come. On the bright side, Airbus is in pursuit of what the aerospace group’s UK general manager Trevor Higgs calls “jet zero” by using sustainable fuel. Airbus has already set the date – it has promised to start selling zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

The International Transport Forum’s (ITF) research into decarbonising air transport recommends that policy makers put in place timely and ambitious fuel quality requirements to encourage the take-up of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). ITF encourages governments to design fuel specifications with effective sustainability criteria which take life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions into account. Further work from ITF showcases flagship SAF policies from leading aviation markets in the US, European Union as well as in emerging markets.

Look, no pilot

Fully autonomous electric flight could also be around the corner, perhaps a decade away. China’s e-Hang says it’s just about ready to go, and, in October 2021, another Chinese company, AutoFlight, demonstrated an unpiloted eVTOL. Called the V1500M, it will carry four passengers for up to 250 km at a maximum speed of 200km/h, according to founder Tian Yu who prophesies: “The V1500M is a milestone for the global development of urban air mobility.”

Hands-free in China: EHang’s autonomous flight trials

It may take a while before passengers feel comfortable about unpiloted flight, though. In mid-2021, a global survey by McKinsey of 4 800 potential customers for electric flight found that, while most of them were attracted to the idea, 60 per cent cited safety as their top concern in fully autonomous aircraft.

Autonomous or not, electric flight will steadily become mainstream as scientists extract more bang for the lithium buck. Within 15 to 20 years, they predict, electric airliners could carry as many as 50 people over the range of 800 km, the distance of roughly half of all flights worldwide.

Yet a flying ferry may get there first! A Boston USA-headquartered marine group, Regent Craft, expects its Seaglider, an all-electric hydrofoil, will be able to travel at up to 160 knots (nearly 300 km/h) by virtue of wings that create a cushion of air over the water. The technology has been around for nearly half a century, but only recently has it been made safe. Regent Craft expects to launch the first 12-passenger flying ferry by 2025, with a 150-passenger version coming later. Towards the end of the decade, Regent Craft hopes the latest batteries will give its flying ferry the same magic range of 800 km.

Is it a bird? All-electric costal travel from Regent Craft’s Seaglider

“The potential to take share from airlines cannot be understated,” predicted chief executive Billy Thalheimer at a ferry conference in Spain in September.

So perhaps the threat to all flight – electrical and otherwise – may come from down below.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.

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Can Transport Kick Its Carbon Habit?

Global warming cannot be stopped without decarbonising transport. But moving people and goods is still 90 percent oil-dependent and national decarbonisation plans lack focus. A moment of truth is approaching at the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow in November.

Aviation is one of the hard-to-decarbonise transport modes.
Photo: SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS/Pexels.com

By Hans Michael Kloth

Just under one-quarter of all the earth-warming, climate-changing CO2 humankind blows into the atmosphere comes from our current transport habits: the petrol-powered and ever-bigger cars in which we drive to work. The fleets of vans that deliver online orders to our doorstep. The kerosin-guzzling planes we fly to overseas beaches and city weekend breaks. The container ships propelled by ultra-dirty bunker fuel that carry our next fridge or laptop across the oceans.

Unlike other sectors of the economy, the carbon footprint of transport is getting bigger, not smaller. More and more people buy cars, hop on planes, buy imported goods as a consumerist middle class emerges in newly prosperous countries, and the world population continues to grow.

The most advanced computer simulations of global transport activity suggest that worldwide demand for transport will more than double by 2050. Even if all the commitments to decarbonise transport in place in early 2021 were fully implemented, transport emissions would still grow 16% by 2050, the year when the international community has vowed to reach net-zero emissions.

Worrying trajectory

Without reversing the worrying upward trajectory on which transport emissions are currently stuck, world leaders will not be able to halt global warming. The good news is that it is possible to change the trend: transport emissions could fall by almost 70% over the next three decades, the models tell us. Yet, it will require the immediate introduction of fully aligned and more ambitious low-carbon policies.   

It can be done – but will it? The best indicators are countries’ decarbonisation strategies, the famous “Nationally Determined Contributions” or NDCs. Signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement have to submit new and, importantly, tougher NDCs every five years that will get them to net-zero emissions by 2050.

The second-round NDCs are now due: they must be on the table for the COP26 climate negotiations that kick off in Glasgow on 1 November with a summit of world leaders. With the conference approaching, many governments sprung into action. The weeks before had seen one or two new NDCs coming in at best.

Getting ready for the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow.
Photo: Philip King/Shutterstoc
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But in the week ending 15 October, a total of 21 countries submitted NDCs – among them one country that had only ratified the Paris Agreement days earlier (Turkey) and one that has not even signed it (Iraq). Three more countries at least announced they would be submitting NDCs soon.

Marginal impact

From a sustainable transport perspective, the impact was marginal, however. The group of countries that meet the gold standard for decarbonisation policies remains frustratingly low: only 16% of the 194 set sector-wide CO2 reduction targets, up marginally from 15% in the previous week, and with more than two-thirds of second-round NDCs in.

Nations that the World Bank defines as “high-income countries” emit about half (46%) of all transport CO2. Yet only four of them are members of the exclusive group of nations with transport sector targets. Low- and middle-income nations seem more ambitious: they make up 87% of the countries with transport targets but emit only 35% of transport CO2 – although it will soon be more as their economies and populations grow.

High-income countries emit half of global transport CO2 but only few have decarbonisation targets for the sector. Source: International Transport Forum

What’s still in the cards?

Will, then, the 58 countries make a difference that still need to show the world their cards? Even if they all fully recognise the importance of transport by including transport-related decarbonisation measures and targets in their second-round NDCs: overall, not even half (44%) of all Paris Agreement signatories would have set transport CO2 reduction targets.

And the chances are rather slim even for this meagre result. Only seven countries of the 194 have failed to mention transport at all, but five of those belong to the group whose second submission is still outstanding. Worse, more than one-third (20) of the laggards so far envisage no transport decarbonisation measures, and only four (or one in 15) have set transport targets.  

Can transport kick its carbon habit?  Fifty years after the first oil shock, our mobility systems are still 90% dependent on oil. But a moment of truth is approaching fast whether we can get serious about cutting transport CO2 emissions to levels that will stop climate change.

On present information, it could be a sombre one.


Editors’s note: This text has been amended to clarify the number of non-signatories of the Paris Agreeement that have recently submitted NDCs.

The fine art of taking good aim (when trying to save the climate)

Nobody throws a lance when they have no target: what climate policy can learn from human resource management  

Natural disasters are now more frequent and ferocious (Photo: D. Futalan, Pexels.com)

By Hans Michael Kloth

The annual round of climate negotiations known collectively as COP kicks off on 1 November in the Scottish port city of Glasgow. It will be the 26th edition of the “Conference of the Parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since 1995, the year when signatory countries began to meet annually to assess progress in their efforts to combat climate change. 

This year’s edition, COP26, is a critical meeting for that combat, for time is running out. Most data-based scenarios see temperatures rising far above sustainable levels if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut radically. And scientists warn that climate change will become irreversible as various tipping points approach that threaten to cascade and conjure a “hothouse” climate that will be less inhabitable for humanity. 

Changed dynamic

COP26 is also critically important because the positive dynamic has also changed. The pivot was the Paris Agreement, negotiated in the City of Lights at COP21 in December 2015. There, nearly 200 countries agreed to draw up national decarbonisation strategies and to submit them to a public registry maintained by the UN.  

COP21 created a positive dynamic (Photo: Bruno Chapiron/MAEDI)

More importantly, they committed to continually tighten the screw for carbon emissions and submit more ambitious reductions strategies every five years. COP26 marks the first of three rounds in which plans with increased ambition, better measures and concrete targets must be put on the table (the original date of 2020 was pushed back because of Covid-19).  

In between these five-year intervals, the world community will take stock of whether the world is on track to achieve net-zero emissions and climate resilience by 2050 – or not (see illustration below). 

The process set by the Paris Climate Agreement (Source: Climate Watch, WRI, CC BY 4.0)

Not looking too good 

At the moment, it doesn’t look too good.  Only eight parties to the Paris Agreement have enacted a legal net-zero target, according to Climate Watch. Fourty-four more have made a political pledge to implement net-zero or evoke this target in policy documents. But six years after Paris, 145 countries have not in any way indicated that they are working towards net-zero in 2050 or how – and these 145 make up just under half of GHG emissions.   

review of how countries tackle transport CO2 in their decarbonisation strategies – commonly known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs – does not make for encouraging reading either. Only 14% of NDCs contain a concrete target for reducing transport CO2, which is responsible for around a quarter of man-made CO2 emissions – a disappointing share that also hasn’t changed with the new submissions since 27 September (there was only one in fact, from South Africa). 

Public transport users in Toronto, Canada (Photo: Andre Furtado, Pexels.com)

To make matters worse, this group of committed transport decarbonisers which have set an overall reduction target for the sector accounts for a paltry 5% of all transport CO2 emissions.  Conversely, a look at the ten largest overall emitters reveals that all of them acknowledge the role of transport for decarbonisation of the world economy and 7 out of 10 propose concrete measures. But only one of them, Canada, has a concrete transport sector target (and there, it is only the province of British-Columbia, which aims for a 27-32% CO2 reduction by 2030 compared to 2007 levels). 

A glass half full?

Those who like to see the glass half full can point to the fact that three quarters (77%) of Paris Agreement signatory countries at least list transport decarbonisation measures and that these generate fully 87% of global transport CO2 emissions.  Some of these even have sub-targets for specific parts of the transport sector.

The European Union’s Green Deal, for instance, sets the goal of a 55% CO2 reduction from cars and 50% from vans by 2030, and zero emissions from new cars by 2035. Such specific targets are valuable and worth applauding, but they raise the question why such help to get their bearings right is not extended to airlines or the road haulage sector and, ultimately, transport as a whole. That said, the EU does have an economy-wide target of reality climate-neutrality by 2050. 

High-level targets help to create a sense of purpose, align efforts and bundle available resources. Based on decades of research in the cognitive sciences, human resource professionals advise managers to set “SMART” objectives for their teams – goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based. They also recommend that targets should be a bit of a stretch to activate energy, motivation and learning.  

It sounds just like what most national climate strategies need now. 


Are you serious?

The signatories of the Paris Agreement have to submit more ambitious decarbonisation plans by early November. We take a look at how committed they are to reducing transport CO2.

Demonstrators urge cimate action. Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

By Hans Michael Kloth

Finally, during the third all-nighter in a row, the breakthrough came. In the catacombs of the airport-turned-convention centre in Le Bourget on the northern outskirts of Paris, lawyers huddled from 2 a.m. to comb through 29 articles of fiendishly complex text. As morning broke, translators went to work. In the afternoon, deft diplomacy forestalled a surging last-minute drama over a single contentious word.

At 7:16 p.m. on Saturday, 12 December 2015, France’s foreign minister took the stage. Only barely controlling his emotions, Laurent Fabius announced the almost unimaginable: nearly all the planet’s sovereign nations had found a common way forward to stop climate change. “We are now at the end of one path, and without doubt at the beginning of another”, Fabius exclaimed. “The world is holding its breath and counting on all of us.”  

Six years later, the world is still holding its breath, and it is still counting. Much has started to move since the historic moment in Paris. But will it be enough?  

Almost all recent analyses agree that the international community is not yet on a path to achieve the goal agreed in Paris: to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius above the temperature level of the pre-industrial era. “The pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise”, warns the International Energy Agency

A nifty mechanism

Yet the Paris Agreement created a nifty mechanism to nudge countries towards sustained action. It not only obliges them to draw up national decarbonisation plans and submit them to the United Nations. The treaty also requires signatories to repeat this exercise every five years, and with more stringent measures.  

In the words of the Paris Agreement, successive plans “will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition”. In simpler language: countries must continuously up their game, and to the max. 

The Paris Agreement process explained. Source: Transport CO2 and the Paris Climate Agreement

The second round of those “Nationally Determined Contributions”, known for short as NDCs, was due in 2020. By the deadline – extended to 30 July 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic – only 110 countries had submitted new or updated NDCs. Latecomers will not be turned down (although left out of the UNFCCC’s “synthesis report” that will take stock of progress) – indeed, fourteen more NDCs have since come in. And what the lagging nations bring to the table can make a considerable difference for the overall picture. That will be reviewed in Glasgow in November at COP26 (short for “26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”), hosted by the United Kingdom.

Eyes on transport

Many eyes will be on transport. Almost one-quarter of all CO2 emissions from fuel combustion comes from transport activity (see chart). Half a century after the first oil shock, transport remains more than 90% dependent on oil. Increasing demand for mobility drives transport CO2 emissions further up: the International Transport Forum projects global transport to more than double by 2050, with traffic emissions rising by 16% compared to 2015 – even if existing commitments to decarbonise transport will be fully implemented.  

Global energy-related CO2 emissions by sector. Source: IEA

How, then, does transport figure in countries decarbonisation commitments? An analysis of the first round of NDCs was hardly encouraging. The 2018 report “Transport CO2 and the Paris Climate Agreement” found that 8 out of 10 NDCs evoked transport somehow, but only 6 in 10 included transport measures, and a disappointing 10% set targets.    

Even those first NDCs which acknowledge transport merely listed “CO2 reduction ambitions, but not yet clear pathways or measures”. And the quality of the measures, the report concluded, “often … remain vague at best” and “in some cases, the mitigation potential of identified ‘measures’ is contestable”. 

Traffic congestion. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Rough but illuminating

Five years on, things look ambivalent at best from a transport decarbonisation perspective. On the positive side, nearly all signatory countries now recognise transport in some shape or form in their current NDCs. The Transport NDC Tracker of the International Tramsport Forum clocked in at 94% on this measure on 27 September 2021. Only eleven countries still ignore transport, and of these nine still have to submit second-round NDCs – so it is still possible to reach 99% overall by November.  

Share of transport mentions, measures and targets in countries’ NDCs

Those countries which mention transport in their NDCs do so 33 times on average. This number might be interpreted as awareness for the role of transport in climate change mitigation, but it is misleading, for 14 countries mention transport only once. Another 11 do so twice. Two nations drive up the average: Colombia’s NDC includes 112 references to transport; that of South Sudan 117.  

On this level, transport mentions in NDCs are illuminating but only the roughest of indicators for decarbonisation ambitions. What about concrete measures to decarbonise transport? Five years ago, 60% of the parties to the Paris Agreement listed at least some in their first NDC submissions. At the end of September 2021, the share has increased to over three-quarters (77%). Depending on how many outstanding second-round NDC will include transport-related measures, that share could still go up to as much as 92%.   

The gold standard of decarbonisation

How effective these measures can be will require a thorough qualitative assessment. A first glance reveals a wide range of proposed actions – some bordering on the trivial, others well-aimed and with a solid evidence base like the decarbonisation measures listed in the Transport Climate Action Directory

The Transport Climate Action Directory is a tool for policy maker to deliver on their decarbonisation ambitions

The gold standard in decarbonisation policy is concrete CO2 reduction targets, however: benchmarks against which the real impact of interventions can be measured and which help steer ambitions towards real results. Yet targets can also be a two-edged sword, as missing goals may cause political backlash. So they need to be developed with great care, based on a good understanding of the complexities involved.  

For those reasons, it was not so surprising that only a smattering of first NDCs contained concrete quantitative targets for cutting transport CO2 emissions. Many will find it disappointing, however, that five years on the share of NDCs with transport CO2 reduction targets has grown by only four percentage points, from 10 to 14%. So progress for the most important action item has been much less than for the other two indicators, which grew by 13 (mentions) and 17 (measures) percentage points over the same period. 

Several dozen second-round NDCs are still due for COP26. There and then, the world will get a better sense of whether it still needs to hold its breath, and on whom it can count.  


Wheels of Fortune: Riding High on Cycling’s Second Golden Age

With the bike industry posting record results, we take a spin around what’s afoot to assess whether pedal power is here to stay.

By Selwyn Parker

The Starley Rover launched cycling’s first golden age in 1885

Just around the corner from my apartment in the city of Perth, Scotland, is a little bike store that is now in its 115th year of business. In all that time, the shop has had just three owners – the founder who retired after nearly 50 years and a former RAF pilot who handed it on to his son. And the store has never been as busy – “every day is like Christmas”, the owner told me.

For a variety of reasons, we are witnessing the second golden age of the bicycle, more than a century after the first, as the most efficient form of transport ever devised makes a glittering comeback from relative neglect.

“The bicycle is seeing an extraordinary cultural revolution,” predicted Virgille Caillet, director general of France’s Union Sport & Cycle, as the revival was gathering speed two years ago.

The evidence for his view is mounting. In Britain alone a new bicycle is sold every ten seconds. Many cities are rapidly expanding their traffic-free cycling lanes, like Mexico City which is working on a four-fold increase that may become permanent after the pandemic. Since 2020, Bogota’s Ciclovia initiative has taken cars off a designated 560-km network of roads every single day instead of just the one. In the Czech Republic, the Rekola bike-rental system has been extended to five cities, while Madrid recently added 50 stations to bring its total to 250. Moscow’s bike-share programme, in its seventh year of operation, now accounts for over five million trips a year.

From a single Sunday to all-year-round: Bogotá’s “Ciclovía”

And that’s just outside. During the lockdowns, millions of exercise-starved people jumped on static bicycles. In fact, never in human history have so many people spent so many hours pedalling nowhere as fast as they could. According to UK industry newsletter BikeBiz, manufacturers of indoor bikes experienced a 440% week-on-week increase in orders through much of the pandemic. At the same time, subscriptions to virtual cycling sites like Zwift, Peloton, BigRingVR went through the roof. Currently, Peloton alone claims 1.67 million members, up by 25% since the first quarter of 2021.

Although they were not going anywhere, many indoor cyclists did a lot of good for others as well as their health, like Londoner Jacob Hill-Gowing, who raised EUR 17 500 for a worthy cause by riding 3 500 kilometres over 41 days in a one-bedroom flat.

Le Tour de Flat: Jacob Hill-Gowing pedals through the pandemic

The industry is celebrating, like Japanese giant Shimano that expects net group profit to jump by nearly 50% compared with 2020. “The global cycling market has expanded by 40% to 50% since 2019 owing to the effects of the pandemic,” explains president Taizo Shimano.

It is not just the pandemic, though, that is putting people back in the saddle. The rapid development of the e-bike is proving transformational, enabling even the relatively unfit to ride almost anywhere they want. Today’s models are lighter (down to 11kg in the latest releases), more sophisticated and more manageable than the clunky versions of a decade ago. At up to EUR 4 000 each, e-bikes outsell standard machines by up to three times, according to the industry. Official figures from a variety of European cycling bodies predict annual e-bike sales to more than quadruple to 17 million by 2030, way more than vehicles.

Battery-assisted bikes also threaten to revolutionise the delivery industry. As the batteries have got more powerful and lighter, a new wave of cargo bikes is emerging. As Velo-city 2021 – the cycling conference in Lisbon in September – will confirm in a session entitled Exploring the endless potential of cargo bikes, they are roughly 60% faster than vans in the more congested city centres, allowing them to deliver ten parcels an hour compared with six for vans, according to a study in London. As a not-insignificant bonus, they also slash emissions by 90% compared with diesel-fuelled vans.

And they are much cheaper – the latest models cost around  EUR 3 400, carry up to 80kg at a battery-assisted top speed of 25km an hour, and cover nearly 60km without a recharge. Little wonder then that many European cities offer fat subsidies for cargo bikes, with Germany’s Brandenburg topping the table at EUR 4 000.

Low-carbon London cargo

The big question is whether a pandemic-induced boom in cycling will fizzle out. UK’s Bicycle Association, the official industry body, is in no doubt. “Our data suggests the UK consumer has rediscovered their love of cycling – the trajectory is set for long-term growth,” predicts its latest report. A happy confluence of transformational factors in the form of improved technology, climate-change activism and a renewed focus on personal health in the wake of the pandemic suggests this observation is correct.

As bicycle historians know, the first golden age started in 1885 when the Starley Rover appeared. Known as the “ordinary”, it was revolutionary because of its diamond-shaped frame, equal-sized wheels and, eventually, air-filled tyres. Almost overnight, the invention changed people’s lives by giving them the freedom to travel far at several times the speed of walking.

Today’s bicycles, which are essentially still ordinaries in design, promise to give people back that same sense of adventure.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.

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ITF Resources:

Re-spacing Our Cities For Resilience (PDF): React, reboot and rethink – how cities can meet this triple challenge to continue as catalysts for creative social and economic activity despite new health imperatives.

Best Practice for Urban Road Safety: Seven case studies of cities that are implementing data-driven road safety policies to protecting vulnerable road users in Barcelona, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Fortaleza, London, New York and Rotterdam.

Safe Micromobility: What are the safety implications of e-scooters and other forms of micromobility in cities. The report considers a range of actions to make urban traffic with micromobility safe, including in street layout, vehicle design and vehicle operation, user education and enforcement of rules.

Travel Transitions: How Transport Planners and Policy Makers Can Respond to Shifting Mobility Trends

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Cycling Safety

Silent Sailing

With the world’s fleet of electric vessels set to grow, Selwyn Parker explores the quiet revolution taking place at sea

The Bastø Electric ferry from Horten to Moss in Norway. Photo credit: Bastø Fosen AS

When a ferry named Bastø Electric began sailing the main Oslo fjord in March 2021, it was a landmark in a crossing that started nearly 440 years ago.

Ferries have plied between two towns – Moss and Horten –  on opposite sides of fjord since 1582, according to local historians. It’s just a 30-minute crossing, but it’s a vital link for locals. In an average year, these ferries, run by a company called Basto Fosen, transport about 1.8 million vehicles and almost four million passengers anxious to avoid the city’s heavy traffic.

It is Norway’s busiest ferry connection. As DNV GL – the classification society – puts it: “The ferries are a constant: a symbol of reliability, stability and trust.”

But reliable and trustworthy as they are, these crossings were diesel-driven. The Basto Electric, however, heralds a new era. At 144 metres long, she is the world’s largest all-electric ferry and can transport up to 200 cars, 24 big trucks and 600 passengers, all borne along by a 7 200 kW battery system.

By 2022 when the company converts two more diesel-powered vessels to all-electric propulsion, the fjord will be quieter and the air will be cleaner. According to DNV GL, the three ferries will slash diesel consumption by six million litres a year in what can only be seen as a portent of things to come in global shipping as the power of batteries continues to grow in ways that few believed possible even a decade ago.

Bastø Electric is a paradigm shift for the route, the shipowner and arguably the wider passenger ship segment in Norway and beyond,” foresees the classification society.

And having written many articles about the electrification of shipping and talked recently with dozens of people within the industry, I can only agree. This is, literally, a quiet revolution. Because the world is much more interested in electric vehicles, the rapid advances in battery-powered shipping have received relatively little attention.

Shipping is a notoriously conservative industry, but it is becoming excited by the potential of electrification, with good reason. As experts point out, it offers huge advantages over diesel-powered propulsion because it is more responsive, more robust, easier to maintain, more reliable because batteries offer more backup, quieter, and of course, cleaner.

So what’s not to like? Well, batteries can catch fire but then so do engine rooms.

Even sceptics can see that the advantages of batteries over fossil fuels become more compelling as they continue to pack more punch for their weight. The latest Blue Whale system developed by Norwegian manufacturer Corvus Energy delivers three and a half times more energy – up from 545 kwh to 1 892 kwh – than its predecessor. It will be installed shortly on a Canadian roll-on, roll-off ferry plying the Salish Sea off British Columbia. Although the system won’t be powerful enough to drive the entire ship in normal operations, it will be able to do so for short periods.

AIDAperla leaves the Port of Hamburg, Germany

Giant cruise ships will soon switch to battery-powered propulsion in ecologically sensitive waters as well as to run some shore operations. One vessel, the 300 metre-long AIDAperla, will this summer go into “silent sailing” mode by virtue of a 10 megawatt battery pack, the most powerful in a passenger ship anywhere. Although these floating hotels can only ghost along under pure battery power – at least for the present, silent sailing is a winner with passengers who, after all, aren’t in a hurry.

Other sectors of shipping have seen the light. Until now, confined mainly to passenger ships, battery power will soon revolutionise that snub-nosed workhorse of the ports, the tugboat. Canada-headquartered naval architect Robert Allan Ltd has unveiled all-electric designs with the power of diesel-fuelled ones – but with none of the pollution. Small though it is, the typical harbour tug pumps out a lot of CO₂ – about 1 700 tonnes a year – which is equivalent to the emissions of more than 300 cars. Thus, as Robert Allan predicts, electric tugs have the potential to clean up some of the world’s busiest marine hubs.

Tugs at work in port

And in Japan, a consortium of companies has thrown its weight behind the development of the world’s first all-electric tanker, a 62 metre-long vessel to be launched in early 2022. Demonstrably good for the environment, the ship will also be congenial for the crew because the vibration is much reduced.

The global fleet of all-electric or hybrid-powered vessels of all kinds currently numbers around 250, if vessels in operation and on order are included. And it’s growing almost by the month. As the vast global fleet of inner-city ferries, for instance, falls due for replacement, all-electric power has become the default option. Rotterdam is converting its water taxis to battery power and Kiel is doing the same with the ferries that work the local fjord as part of the authorities’ pledge to become a CO2-free city by 2050.

The hybrid electric Gaarden ferry on the Kiel Fjord, Germany

Historically speaking, battery-powered ferries aren’t new. Since 1909, in a remarkable technological feat of the time, all-electric passenger boats have sailed the pristine waters of the Konigsee in Germany. But it was the Nordic countries that took zero-emission propulsion into the 21st century under a 45-year-old cooperative initiative that is now led by Oslo-based Nordic Energy Research. As a study by the International Transport Forum called Navigating Towards Cleaner Maritime Shipping noted in late 2020: “It is an approach that holds many lessons for shipping nations seeking to decarbonise their fleet as quickly as possible.”

It’s a fair assumption though that not even the founders of this initiative expected to see an all-electric, 144 metre-long ferry on the Oslo fjord as soon as 2021.


Selwyn Parker is an independent author and journalist who writes for a wide range of publications on transport and related technology in all its forms.

See more ITF work on maritime transport

Women-only ride-hailing: new data inspires the movement

More ride-hailing companies are offering women-centred services, but do they get women on the road?

By Alexa Roscoe, Disruptive Technology Lead, International Finance Corporation

The next time you open your favourite ride-hailing app, you may find a surprising feature: the option to choose a woman driver or rider.

Safety is a determining factor when women decide how, when, or if to drive and travel. In the face of widespread harassment in the transport sector, social mores restricting women’s mobility, and overall market demand, sector leaders like Bolt, Didi, and Uber are increasingly adopting women-centred products. This surge begs the question: Do these services succeed in supporting women?

There has been a rapid expansion of women-only options in ride-hailing…  

Last year, IFC published the first research on women-centred services in ride-hailing, interviewing more than 30 companies and identifying seven different active models of women-centred ride-hailing services. The paper explored whether gender-segregated transport, long a topic of heated debate in mass transit, increases women’s mobility and participation in ride-hailing- or whether it just reinforces existing barriers.

Since the report’s publication, services have scaled significantly, growing from pilots to formalised products active across multiple countries. Uber extended its “Women Rider Preference” product from Saudi Arabia to 11 countries in Latin America and Africa, recently extending it to drivers who identify as non-binary as well.  Didi, which in IFC’s initial report described using “Algorithmic Prioritisation” in China to connect women drivers and riders automatically, launched Didi Mujer (Didi Woman), giving women drivers the option to match only women riders in select markets. Most recently, Bolt launched a “Women-only” feature, now active in five countries, which takes a slightly different approach, allowing riders to request matches with women drivers rather than the reverse.

Rapid scaling of women-centred products – even in the face of a global pandemic – has brought them into the mainstream, making it increasingly essential to explore their impact.  

…but do they really open up opportunities for women?

Women-centred services have shown market demand across a remarkably diverse range of contexts. Previously, IFC’s six-country study found that these services would boost women’s use of ride-hailing across locations, particularly when travelling at night, alone, or in insecure areas. In Sri Lanka, 90 per cent of women PickMe riders would like to choose the gender of their drivers, and 25 per cent would be willing to pay a premium to do so.  

Yet confirming if these services succeed in getting women to work in ride-hailing is more complex. Following the legalisation of women’s driving in Saudi Arabia, Uber data shows many women started out by using the “Women Rider Preference” feature exclusively, but gradually transitioned into the main app.  Similarly, in Latin America one in five women who use the feature use it 90 per cent of the time. This suggests that segregated services could serve as a bridge for women into a sector in which they might not otherwise consider working.

Equally important, more than half of drivers who used the option in Brazil drove more overall and at night, when women drivers are least likely to be on the road but demand for rides is higher. This means the product has the potential to increase incomes by helping women work more, and more profitable, hours. As of June 2021, “Women Rider Preference” users had completed over 7 million trips.

Bolt also reported promising data for the first six months of the launch of its “Women-only” option, telling IFC that availability of women drivers increased by as much as 66 per cent in active markets. The feature also seems to be linked with higher trip completion rates for women, addressing a common challenge where men cancel their ride when assigned a woman driver. Globally, women drivers have an average 4.9/5.0 service rating, making them eligible for performance bonuses. As Bolt Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East, Paddy Partridge, noted “Women riders and drivers are essential to the advancement of the ride-hailing industry. The success of these “Women-only” categories proves that the more deliberate inclusion of women contributes to the growth and sustainability of the ride-hailing sector.”

Detours ahead?

Even in the face of strong demand, companies face significant operational hurdles. For instance, matching women drivers, who remain a minority across contexts, with women riders can mean that few drivers serve a large population, potentially decreasing driver incomes and increasing rider wait times. A homogenous user base can also mean dramatic fluctuations in supply and demand: in the early stages of their launch, founders of Egypt-based Fyonka couldn’t understand why they faced a sudden drop-off in driver availability- until they realised many women were at home helping their children prepare for upcoming exams.  

Successful companies intentionally exceed industry standards related to training, social norms, and security. For instance, Ghana’s LadyBird Logistics, a long-distance trucking company, sends out women drivers in pairs and arranges for safe overnight lodging.  Several others offer dedicated training or ensure family buy-in to help build the pipeline of recruits.

Getting women on the road

Women remain a small fraction of transport providers everywhere in the world. Transport gaps for riders reduce women’s labour force participation by more than 15 percentage points. Tackling both challenges means making all forms of transport affordable, accessible, and safe for women. Neither gender-segregated transport nor ride-hailing alone will ever be sole solutions, but as markets reopen and more ride-hailing companies recognise the need to better serve women as drivers and riders, we need to continue to look for new solutions from across the sector and to keep alive the debate on how best to serve women in ride-hailing.

For further discussion and case studies, see “Gender-Segregated Transport in Ride-hailing: Navigating the Debate” and join the conversation using #DrivingEquality. For more on women and ride-hailing, check out the resources below:

See more on ITF’s work on Gender in Transport, including the latest project on developing a Gender Analysis Toolkit for Transport Policies

S Express: boosting EV take-up on the road to our global climate goals

by Sophie Punte, Managing Director of Policy, We Mean Business coalition and Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources

 
Most people planning to buy a new car in the next year are likely to be considering an electric one. For anyone not considering going electric, they may live to regret it. In just three years’ time, electric cars will likely beat petrol and diesel cars on cost, environmental impact and performance.

It feels like the progress on electric cars has moved at high speed over the last year, and data shows it’s only going to get even faster. This is because electric vehicle (EV) uptake is on what’s known as an ‘S-curve’ of growth. On every occasion this has happened in the past with other industrial transitions, governments, business and consumers have been taken by surprise.

s-curve-graph

Remember the years up to 2012, when we would proudly pull out our latest model of (for many) the Nokia mobile phone? Yet once smartphones arrived, we all switched rapidly without much thought. What you got with a smartphone for a fairly equivalent price made it worth it. The speed of the transition was phenomenal. We’ve seen similar patterns of S-curve growth with the switch from video rental to streaming. The telecommunications and film industry business models have been completely transformed.

So what can we expect in the car industry? A new study by the University College of London (UCL) in collaboration with the We Mean Business Coalition (WMB) shows that global EV sales have increased by an average of 41% per year since 2015. If growth follows this S-curve trajectory, all new cars sold could be electric by 2040.

s-curve-transport-report

In terms of the climate crisis – while this is positive news – we’ll need to push harder to get on track for halving emissions by 2030 and a net zero future by 2050. To achieve that, we need new passenger road vehicle sales to be 100% zero-emission by 2035.

Given the exponential growth so far, we may be tempted to hope that the market will take care of the problem itself. But we must not underestimate the measures needed to ensure a smooth path to 100% EVs. Current charging infrastructure is inadequate; there isn’t enough of it and it’s not seamlessly set up to make it easy enough for consumers. Also, EV purchase costs are still out of reach for many.  

How do we deal with these challenges? Governments have a critical role to play, as featured in the report’s principal policy recommendations:

  • Invest in infrastructure for reliable, seamless and publicly accessible charging.
  • Commit to public procurement of EVs and incentivise private companies to do the same, for example through the Climate Group’s EV100 program.
  • Help buyers overcome up-front EV purchase costs by stimulating leasing schemes and second-hand markets for EVs and batteries.
  • Tighten emission standards and implement fiscal incentives to accelerate the simultaneous phasing out of the internal combustion engine.
  • Invest in a simultaneous rapid transition to renewable power to ensure EVs are genuinely zero-emission.

And let’s make sure that we look beyond EVs because this is the decade of action. We must take a holistic approach to maximise the opportunities available including to:

  • Futureproof legislation and infrastructure for a future where vans, light duty trucks and possibly even heavy trucks will go electric.
  • Continue energy efficiency improvements, for both vehicles and for more efficient driving and route planning.
  • Encourage appropriate use of cars and trucks alongside other transport modes; incentivise passenger travel by train, bike or foot, and efficient transportation of goods by rail or ship.

Moving on an EV s-curve will have deep implications, not limited to the clean vehicle and clean energy markets. Governmental action to stimulate a transition to EVs and renewable energy will therefore also require actions that go beyond the role that policy should take to stimulate these transitions. An upcoming ITF report points to three major areas that are worth greater consideration by policy makers and offers relevant recommendations on how to handle the challenges affecting them. These relate to changes in the demand for new materials and related supply chains, structural changes in government revenues from fuel taxes and impacts that a switch to EVs and renewables – as well a digital technologies – will have for jobs and changes in skillsets. Indeed, as we get excited about EVs, we should consider how to help transition workers from the traditional automotive industry into new jobs in EV manufacturing and beyond.

Taking action on all these fronts will ensure that the transition is achievable, sustainable and causes the least disruption to people as possible.

Our overall approach to car use could also make or break the success of the EV transition. What has become all too clear during the Covid-19 crisis is that collaboration between countries is essential to succeed. The same is true for the climate crisis. Emerging economies are an important market for second-hand cars including more polluting models. There is a risk is that these countries could soon be the dumping ground for petrol and diesel cars, keeping their emissions levels high with the associated localised air pollution effects. Tighter emission standards and preferably import bans for ICE vehicles and engines can reduce this risk.

The UCL/WMB report aims to give both business and policymakers worldwide the confidence to increase ambition in the transport sector and to boost the S-curve. Along with the ITF analysis on cleaner vehicles, it also helps to ensure that this technology transition will be resilient.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, governments can help business at key moments like the G7, G20 and COP26 to deliver clear, detailed policies to achieve their national targets in line with the Paris Agreement climate goals. As passenger road vehicles are responsible for 45% of global transport emissions, it is critical that we maximise their emissions reduction potential now. And EVs are not only better for the climate than petrol and diesel vehicles. They also improve human health through cleaner air and, if planned well, could increase jobs and growth. They can play an essential role in helping us build back better.

Supply chain reaction: why the time is ripe for sustainable logistics

With the stakes higher than ever in the run-up to the crucial UN climate talks in Scotland this November, Sophie Punte and Alan McKinnon share their vision of how logistics systems can and are providing a sustainable backbone for the planet’s ever-increasing movement of goods.

Electric vehicle last-mile deliveries in Shanghai, China

When logistics systems work, as they normally do, they are taken for granted and attract little media attention, despite handling USD 19 trillion of merchandise trade annually. The Covid crisis, however, has exposed both the importance and vulnerability of our just-in-time supply chains. These chains have played a critical role in the switch from conventional to online retailing during periods of lockdown and in the supply of personal protective equipment and now vaccines. On the other hand, cancelled ship sailings, trucks caught in 40 km tailbacks at borders, disrupted production lines and empty shelves in our shops have shown how susceptible logistics is to major disasters.

The pandemic has given us a glimpse of the kind of disruptions we can expect from climate change. Already, supply chains are being stressed by climate-induced events, such as the Australian and Californian forest fires and Africa’s floods and droughts. Meanwhile, adaptation of our built environment to ever-more-frequent and extreme weather events will generate much additional freight demand as we try to minimise the consequences of climate change.

Efforts to contain coronavirus have also given us a sense of the magnitude of the changes required to mitigate carbon emissions from freight transport. In May 2020, the International Transport Forum projected a 28% drop in freight-related emissions (PDF link) worldwide as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Although emission levels have since rebounded, this level of decarbonisation will be required by 2030 to get freight transport onto a net-zero trajectory by 2050, though without having to resort to industrial and societal shutdowns.

With logistics’ share of global CO2 emissions at 10-11% and rising, efforts to decarbonise it must intensify. We believe that recovery from the pandemic presents an opportunity to build global supply chains that are both more environmentally sustainable and more resilient. Fortunately, these goals of sustainability and resilience are well aligned, and there are many ways in which they can be jointly achieved.

The logistics decarbonisation process is underway, though its pace and scale must increase to reach the Paris climate goals. In a recent European survey of 90 businesses, 30% had a target to cut total logistics emissions and a sustainability strategy in place or being implemented to deliver it.

New technology and a switch to low carbon energy will dramatically reduce freight emissions. Shenzhen, for example, has already deployed 70 000 “electric logistics vehicles” (ELVs). Small players like Workhorse are aspiring to become the Tesla of the electric delivery van market. However, we need faster action now and cannot wait until the world’s freight fleets migrate from fossil to zero-carbon energy. In the short to medium term, training in fuel-efficient driving, better use of freight carrying capacity, less packaging and shifting freight to cleaner, lower-carbon transport modes can all shrink the logistics carbon footprint.

In deploying these essentially managerial initiatives, we can ride the wave of digitalisation that is already transforming logistics. Digital freight platforms, like G7 in China, Sennder in Europe, India’s Freight Tiger and Flexport worldwide are taking the online matching of loads with available capacity to a new level. They are cutting the 20-30% of truck-kilometres typically run empty and raising fill rates in sea containers, planes and rail wagons. They are also helping entire supply chains to become more visible both operationally and in terms of their carbon emissions. This makes it easier for companies to report emissions to customers and identify ‘hot spots’ in need of efficiency improvement.

An increasingly carbon-intensive hot spot in many companies’ supply chains is the ‘so-called’ last-mile delivery to online consumers. By 2023, online shopping was expected to reach 22% of all retail sales worldwide before taking the impact of the coronavirus into account. A World Economic Forum / McKinsey study (PDF link) has predicted a 30% growth in CO2 emissions from last-mile delivery in the world’s 100 largest cities by 2030.

Where an online delivery replaces a car shopping trip, a significant net reduction in emissions can be achieved. Still, much more can be done to improve the energy and carbon efficiency of last-mile logistics by, for example, consolidating orders, using locker-banks and minimising returns.

The good news is that environmental action in the logistics sector is growing. In support of the EU Green Deal, a Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy was published in December outlining how the freight transport sector’s green and digital transformation should proceed. California has mandated that by 2035 only zero-emission vehicles are sold and is requiring truck manufacturers to transition to electric zero-emission trucks beginning in 2024. As part of its commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060, China is prioritising goods movement by rail and the use of electric delivery vehicles to curb freight emissions. About forty cities in The Netherlands are introducing zero-emission freight zones, as are cities in the UK, China and elsewhere.

Over 100 multinationals, including Unilever, HP Inc and Maersk, calculate and report logistics emissions using a standard developed by the Global Logistics Emissions Council or GLEC, thereby increasing consistency and transparency. DP-DHL was the first logistics company to commit to zero-emission freight by 2050, while IKEA will be making only zero-emission home deliveries by 2025. In the European study mentioned earlier, a majority of the 90 businesses surveyed reckoned that at least half of CO2-reducing measures in logistics also cut costs, giving them a strong commercial as well as environmental motive to decarbonise. Of these companies, 70% also reported that the pandemic would have either no impact or a positive effect on their logistics decarbonisation efforts.

Calls for a green recovery to the Covid-19 crisis are growing, supported by clear policy recommendations from the We Mean Business coalition. This needs to go hand-in-hand with making infrastructure climate-ready, at a cost of around USD 1.8 trillion by 2030 according to the UN-led Global Commission on Adaptation. Despite this huge spend, much of which will go on logistical operations, it should save around USD 4 for every USD 1 spent.

This year’s UN Climate Change conference (or COP26) in Glasgow presents an excellent opportunity to scale- up our collective efforts to achieve resilient, zero-emission freight and logistics by 2050.

Sophie Punte is the founder and board advisor of Smart Freight Centre, a global non-profit organisation dedicated to zero-emission freight, and Managing Director of Policy at the We Mean Business coalition.

Alan McKinnon is Professor of Logistics at Kuehne Logistics University in Hamburg, a lead author of the transport chapter of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report and author of “Decarbonizing Logistics“.

The International Transport Forum’s 2021 Virtual Summit on “Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development” will be held from 17 to 28 May online. This special virtual edition of the world’s premier transport policy event features sessions for a brigher transport future including on low-carbon vehicles, actions to decarbonise freight transport, and on achieving more resilient and innovative goods transport. See the Summit programme and register to join the debate!

Stuck in the Suez Canal: Lessons from the Logjam

by Olaf Merk

On 23 March, a mega container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal – and remained stuck for six days. Despite the digging, towing and dredging, the only thing that was unblocked was creativity in the form of Suez memes on the web. The mega-ship proved to be the vessel on which all possible human problems could be projected. Now that she is refloated, hilarity can ebb away and give way to reflections on the implications of this incident.

Let’s start with the principal actors: the Canal and the ship. The Suez Canal is one of the world’s maritime chokepoints. Around 12% of world trade passes through it, approximately fifty ships each day, mostly container ships and tankers. The Suez route is considerably shorter than its alternative, the Cape route. Nevertheless, shipping companies regularly snob the Suez Canal, especially in times of low oil prices and as a way to put pressure on the Suez Canal Authority to cut canal dues.

The other actor was the mega-ship: the “Ever Given” is 400 metres long and 60 metres wide, she can carry more than 20 000 containers. This is exactly the type of ship for which the Suez Canal was widened and deepened in 2016.

What happened?

How exactly did the giant vessel get stuck? Little certainty here so far, and much conjecture. The ship owner remained silent throughout the process, as did the ship operator. The ship manager blamed the wind and denied that there was power failure.  That it is a mega-ship that caused an important global trade route to shut down is no coincidence, and many experts have warned about the risks they create. These gigantic ships are more difficult to manoeuvre and get more easily stuck due to their deep draft. They are also heavier than smaller containership, so more complicated to refloat.

More clarity should come from the investigation of the accident. The flag state of the “Ever Given” has a reputation for dodging such responsibilities, but it is hard to imagine that it dare to do so now given the global attention. Thanks to a heroic effort by the salvage company and the canal authority the ship was freed after a week and traffic on the world’s busiest shortcut could resume. Zoom out, happy ending.

But not really. The backlog of hundreds of other ships waiting to transit through the Canal is creating enormous challenges in ports and throughout the whole supply chain. Some observers calculated the costs of the Suez Canal blockage to be between USD 6 to 10 billion per week. Just remember: the reliability of ship schedules has been in freefall since June 2020. Two out of three container ships are delayed; in the beginning of 2021 the average was five days. If a few days of Suez Canal blockage leads to billions of dollars economic costs, imagine the extent of the loss due to delayed vessels just prior to the incident.

The costs of no canal

The supply chain disruption that we will see in the coming weeks is the quintessence of the mega-ship: maximise the economies of scale on the ships, but leave it up to ports to clean up any mess that may result. Ports will now be put under pressure to catch up and find additional handling capacity when this was already stretched. They will need to keep some vessels waiting and get blamed for “port congestion” that is not their fault.

This is nothing new: various organisations have recently blamed port congestion for increased freight rates, although these already started to rise in May 2020, well before port activity was back to normal after the dip due to Covid-19. Do not expect carriers to pay for the situation that their mega-ships have caused. The Suez blockage has reduced effective ship capacity, so will likely lead to further increases in ocean freight rates. Customers and ports will pay the price instead, and maybe a few insurers.

A report on “The Impact of Mega-Ships“ the ITF published in 2015 described this dynamic, in which mega-ships create benefits and profits for their owners and operators, while the costs they incur – such as those for longer berths or truck congestion in port cities – are left for others to pay.

Deeper causes of disruption

At that time, the mega-ship strategy of carriers was, to some extent, self-defeating: as new mega-ships contributed to oversupply of ships, ocean freight rates were going to be low and profits limited. This has changed now. The intended effect of mega-ships was to force a market consolidation, which has happened. The unintended effect has been increased cooperation between the major carriers. The world’s top ten carriers are now interlinked in various alliances and consortia, providing carriers with the mechanisms to coordinate ship capacity. During the Covid-19 crisis, they used this power to their advantage by stabilising and pushing up freight rates

Thus, the current disruption of the maritime supply chain is not about a mega-ship stuck in the Suez Canal, and it not about lack of adequate infrastructure in ports – ultimately, it is about a lack of effective competition policy for global liner shipping. In Europe, regulators are now urging ports to free up capacity to deal with the after-effects of the Suez incident. There have not been reports that they also urged carriers to reinstate more capacity to Asia-Europe trade routes when trade picked up again in Q3 and Q4/2020, but carriers deployed 4% less capacity than over the same period in 2019.

The mega-ship incident in the Suez Canal has shown the vulnerabilities of the global maritime supply chain. Some stakeholders will no doubt push for a new expansion of the Suez Canal, more port infrastructure and the development of alternative maritime routes, for example the Arctic Sea routes. This would be misguided. The main vulnerability is the mega-ship and the world of integrated mega-carriers that it has created.

Changes in deployed container ship capacity on different trade lanes (YoY)

Source: ITF, MDS Transmodal

Olaf Merk is Project Manager for Ports and Shipping at the International Transport Forum