Why fighting transport CO2 emissions is like “Game of Thrones”

by Andrew Jackson

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We all enjoy a good story, where the unsuspecting hero faces challenge after challenge, and eventually wins through to bring triumph for those we care for. “Game of Thrones” challenges that paradigm, as the heroes we love are killed off one by one – with betrayal, swords and poison.

While this comment about “Game of Thrones” may be a spoiler to few people, the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD in May published a report on the future of transport which may include the biggest spoiler of any plot. And unlike in our perfect stories, the report’s plot is one from “Game of Thrones” – where our future ends tragically.

The story starts by looking at how much we will travel in 2050. Cheap cars, cheap flights and cheap freight will provide us with great access. We will be able to explore the world more easily and have the things we want come to our doorsteps from anywhere in the world.

The total distance we travel locally and internationally will continue to rise. New technologies, urbanisation, global patterns of trade and world population growth from 7.7 to 9.7 billion people weave together into a powerful story of our future. Increasing wealth sees many more able to afford to adopt the movement lifestyles of the developed world. The story concludes that by 2050 total travel will increase threefold.

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Changing how we move

Not only will there be a significant increase in movement, we will also change how we move. Fewer people will own their cars. More of us will use public transport and cycle and walk. The use of electric vehicles will increase. We will take all of these steps to make our transport system more sustainable.

But the “Game of Thrones”-like ending to our heroic efforts to reduce CO2 emissions will be that we will fail to reduce the amount of carbon produced by transport. The three-fold increase in the amount of miles travelled will mean that despite all of the international efforts to decarbonise transport, our poison pill will be a 60% increase in CO2 emissions from travel and freight by 2050.

The ITF’s analysis includes the assumption that we will follow through on all current pledges of worldwide action. It thus assumes that the percentage of trips by car in OECD cities will decrease from 75% to 46%, and that 35% of trips in cities will be by public transport. Overall, this will lead to 20% fewer of trips being made by car. Further assumptions are that the current rate of uptake of electric vehicles will continue and that we will have electric planes making all trips of less than 1 000 kilometres. But all this will still not be enough even to keep CO2 emissions from transport at current levels, let alone reduce them.

We are offered an alternative ending to the story.  A story where we double our current efforts for change in the transport system. The number of trips by car in cities would fall to 26% of trips. There would be a 5% to 10% increase in the densification of our cities. There would be widespread uptake of electric vehicles, and we will use electric aircraft for all flights up to 1600 kilometres.

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The change we need

Yet even this apparent heroic intervention in the form of major investments, rapid technological advances and promotion of significant social change would be destined to fall short of our goal. Just like in “Game of Thrones”, this would be another hero we could embrace, only to see that our renewed efforts fail to bring about the change we need.  Yes, in this scenario we would see a 30% reduction in carbon emissions from transport by 2050.  But it would be nowhere near the 80% reduction we need to avoid annual weather events of a scale and nature that historically were the tragedies of a century.

Tragedies like the 1931 floods in China, which saw more than a million people die, the North American drought of 1988 which led to damage of USD 130 billion and 10 August 2003 European heatwave, the hottest day in history killing 30 000 people across Europe.

I wish I could finish my story with a third ending, where we will live on happily ever after. I do not have one. This is a story that will only end well if we have heroic political leadership. Leadership that is willing to take decisions that will risk their personal political futures today in order to secure a positive future for society. But at the moment we are on a track to see world temperatures rise to the levels which are the worst nightmare of the climate change activists – summer is coming!

Andrew Jackson is Managing Director at Consulting Jackson. He is a former Deputy Chief Executive of New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport

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The ITF Transport Outlook 2019 is available via the OECD iLibrary here

 

 

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