UCC’s Vera O’Riordan explains why focusing on replacing conventional cars with EVs is a ‘missed opportunity’ for countries to also develop alternative means of transport and help meet global climate targets.
Transport is responsible for 24pc of energy-related carbon emissions worldwide. Half of those emissions are from carrying goods and services, and the other half are from carrying people from A to B – also known as passenger transport.
Passenger transport has a huge impact on our surroundings, and it’s one of the biggest factors in determining where we live and work. It can be bumper-to-bumper LA traffic, bike-filled Danish cities, Japanese bullet trains, buzzing Vietnamese mopeds, taxi ranks lined with India’s famous three-wheeled rickshaws, or bustling London subways.
Introducing electric vehicles (EVs) on a massive scale has often been framed as the solution to reducing passenger transport emissions – witness the UK’s plans for all new homes and upgraded buildings to have EV charging points from 2022.
However, recent research from the US has shown that the electrification of cars alone will not be enough for the transport sector to reach ambitious global climate action targets aiming to prevent more than two degrees Celsius of global warming.
In addition, a population that continues to depend on cars poses significant problems for growing cities. With urbanisation on the rise and space at a premium, we must reduce car ownership in cities if we are to keep them as affordable and accessible as possible. Huge amounts of land which could otherwise be used to house people or be dedicated to nature are still reserved for roads and car parks.
Although EVs certainly help address increasing transport emissions, simply focusing on replacing conventional cars with EVs is a missed opportunity for countries to develop alternative means of transport beyond car dependency.
Climate action funds – including the Adaptation Fund, a UN-backed international fund helping developing countries to adapt to the climate crisis – are projected to reach $100bn of funding by 2023. Much of this money is channelled towards sustainable infrastructure projects, which could help developing countries to build efficient and sustainable mass-transit systems.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocates for an approach to passenger transport planning called ‘Avoid, Shift, Improve’, which is adapted from a framework first developed in Germany in the early 1990s.
‘Avoid’ refers to reducing the need for transport in the first place. This involves planning new urban areas and redeveloping old ones to be as well organised as possible, so people will not have to travel far for their working, shopping, education and recreational needs. While years of investment into roads have made it very difficult for some cities to move away from car use, the future is still unwritten for many of our growing cities.
This approach also involves connecting homes and rural towns to the internet so that people can easily and cheaply work from home, leaving road space free for people – like doctors or teachers – who cannot.
‘Shift’ means switching necessary travel to more sustainable, active and higher-occupancy modes of transport. Instead of single-occupancy cars, for example, we can use buses, trains, bikes, scooters, skateboards or walking paths. Across the world, we can see exciting examples of how countries have managed to make this shift away from carbon-intensive car dependency.
The TransMilenio bus system, operating in the cities of Bogotá and Soacha in Colombia, is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Transporting between 1m and 2m people daily, its broad range of stops, dedicated bus lanes and affordable ticketing stations create an easily accessible service.
Increasing the uptake of active modes of travel is another way to encourage this shift. E-bikes are among the fastest-growing types of transport in China. The motor-assisted travel encourages cycling longer journeys in hilly areas, warmer areas and among people who are less fit. Studies from Sweden and Norway show that cyclists who switch from conventional bikes to e-bikes increase their number of journeys and the distances they travel on average for each journey.
Recently, residents of Berlin voted to expand car restrictions in the German city to cover 88 sq km of the city – a proposal which would create the world’s largest car-free urban zone. Actions like these can address the safety concerns of pedestrians and cyclists, who fear navigating alongside fast-moving, heavy vehicles, by providing segregated active travel routes.
Importantly, researchers have noted that without measures to restrict car use, other measures to encourage the uptake of public transport, walking and cycling have little impact.
Once unnecessary travel has been cut from things like poor urban planning and employer policies requiring workers’ presence in offices, and once safe public transport systems or active travel options have been provided, we can focus on making the vehicles we currently have more sustainable.
Although fuel efficiency has slightly reduced the fuel consumption per kilometre of car transport, passenger transport demand continues to grow – meaning that overall, increased emissions from passenger transport outstrip efficiency reductions. As a result, the ‘improve’ part of the UN’s framework involves switching bus, rail and car transport from fossil fuels to electric.
The key to reducing passenger transport emissions is enabling access to and use of electric cars only where there are no other reasonable travel options. If we do this, we have a chance to end car dependency while still helping as many people as possible to travel.
Vera O’Riordan is a PhD researcher at Science Foundation Ireland’s Marine and Renewable Energy Institute (MaREI) based at University College Cork. She works with the Energy Policy and Modelling Group to model past, present and future emissions from transport, with funding from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
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