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How We’ll Get Around in a Decarbonised World

Climate Change

The path towards decarbonising transport has become clear over time — and it seems like consumers are interested in making it happen, write Peter Newman and Dean Economou, of Curtin University in Perth

Transport is the laggard in decarbonising the economy.

As the International Energy Agency suggests, oil and gas can no longer hide behind coal as the climate change rogue fuel. But how hard will decarbonisation of transport be?

Electric Vehicles present an attractive option to consumers: they feel good to drive, are cheaper to run and will be considerably cheaper to buy by 2030. Their competitors, oil and gas-powered cars, are under increasing pressure as the world decarbonises.

EVs are driving out of showroom doors at accelerating rates – seeing 50 percent annual compound growth since 2015. Of 9,000 people in 13 countries considering buying a new car this year, 41 percent planned to buy an electric or hybrid vehicle, according to Ernst and Young.

Still, in most countries EVs are bought by people with higher incomes. To reach emissions reduction targets, people earning lower incomes will need access to affordable EVs so they can stop driving petrol and diesel cars. The US is considering EV subsidies targeting lower income earners.

There is one big problem: EVs charged from solar will be a very cheap form of mobility, meaning cities risk becoming even more car dependent.

Vehicle congestion is still a problem even if the cars aren’t spewing out toxic fumes. And the best cities to live in tend not to be designed around cars. It’s inevitable some version of road user pricing will come into force to help counteract congestion, coupled with increased investment in mass transit.

Autonomous vehicles are coming in one form or another (though maybe never as fully driverless machines), and can support both private ownership and public transport. Most new vehicles have some form of autonomy to help with road safety, including new forms of road-based transit like trackless trams. 

Trackless trams are guided quickly and smoothly down main roads like a high-quality light rail by a smart system, powered by batteries on the roof. They are cheaper than traditional tram systems. A strong e-transit system will help balance the congestion brought by EVs, alongside increased uptake on e-rideables and e-bikes.

Like EVs, growth in e-Bikes has also taken off, with all other e-rideables (scooters, skateboards, unicycles, hoverboards). Forbes projects that, by 2030, e-Bike sales will reach 17 million per year in Europe, up from 3.7 million in 2020. They are likely to increase in the short distance transport market, if given the right protections, such as separated lanes and forward-thinking regulation. 

And it’s not just for commuters. Most deliveries in dense urban areas are increasingly carried out by electric cargo bikes because they are cheaper and faster than driving a car.

Electric Vespa-style scooters are a burgeoning market, with well-priced, stylish and high-performance models coming out of the motorcycle powerhouse India from trusted brands like Hero. In East Africa, electric Boda Bodas are rising in popularity. These are being used in emerging cities for passengers and cargo. 

Walking remains the most important form of mobility for our health, and has shaped many cities designed to encourage the activity. During the pandemic, more people took to walking — and it may grow further. 

But it will depend on how we build our cities. There remains ongoing debate about how much we build our cities around walking and transit rather than cars. 

More walking, or use of e-bikes and e-rideables, presents no environmental threat, we just have to make them safe. Companies like Luna and Voi Scooters are partnering to develop and test technology for e-Scooters to detect and avoid pedestrians.

The combination of e-rideables and e-transit will reduce emissions and unlock urban regeneration around station precincts that are recharge hubs, attracting investment in houses, jobs and services.

Transforming the heavy vehicle sector could take longer.

Trucks and freight trains were seen to be too heavy to switch to electric so much work has gone into hydrogen fuel cells instead. Emerging battery technology is now allowing big trucks and trains to go electric. These are being purchased by big mining companies, creating new jobs in regions.

They will need more recharge services that are fast and extend out through the locations they are servicing.

The biggest issue in transport is what to do with ships and planes that make up around 23 percent of global transport emissions.

There appear to be only a few small ships and planes that can be electrified and the only drop-in decarbonised fuels that can work are still incredibly expensive. Hydrogen created from solar energy is needed to make ammonia for ships and synthetic jet fuel for planes. Advanced biofuels made from wood waste are a similar story and all need breakthroughs in science and engineering. 

Small decarbonised planes or ‘eVTOLs’ are a potential solution for short trips. There are about 200 companies working on this type of vehicle for intra and inter city travel at ranges up to 300 kilometres. The autonomous flying machines can do the work of helicopters and corporate jets with little noise and effectively become Ubers in the air

We could travel less for meetings — especially international ones — and continue to use platforms like Zoom, especially as taking trips becomes an ethical issue for many people and businesses.

Apart from ships and planes, which require creative thought and experimentation, the path to a transport energy transition is not hard to see. A decarbonised transport system beckons. 

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Peter Newman is Professor of Sustainability at Curtin CUSP and a lead author for Transport on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He has written 23 books on sustainable cities and was awarded an Order of Australia for his contributions to urban design and sustainable transport. Peter Newman receives no financial support from the IPCC.

Dean Economou is a Research Fellow at Curtin CUSP specialising in new transport technologies, maintains a transport advisory practice and is founding advisor for on-demand shared mobility provider Liftango.

The authors declared no conflicts of interest in relation to this article.



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