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/

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

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.

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