New Report: Transportation, Technology and Climate Change

Chapter L by Paul Barter in UNEP's newest report presents three-wheeled passenger cars as a significant and acceptable component of the urban transport system in developing countries. Photo by Brett Davies.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Risoe Centre released a report on the technologies that can help mitigate climate change in the transport sector. The report, written in collaboration with the Global Environment Facility, is part of the Risoe Centre’s Technology Needs Assessment (TNA) Project’s series of guidebooks. The TNA Project assists select countries worldwide in determining their technology priorities regarding mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation to climate change.

Previously the project released guidebooks on mitigation technologies for the water sector and for coastal erosion and flooding. They are currently working on similar guidebooks for the building and agriculture sectors.

The report, “Technologies for Climate Change Mitigation: Transport Sector,” is an attempt to assist transport officials in developing transport services and facilities in their respective countries and localities, all while accomplishing two important missions: implementing transport that better serves people’s needs and enhances their lives, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The guidebook recognizes the challenges in implementing comprehensive and environmentally conscious transport: cheaper and accessible, but also expansive and better quality transport that reduces pollution, congestion and road fatalities, while supporting economic development and reducing greenhouse emissions.“This can be achieved,” the report says, only if mass transit, walking and cycling are supported, encouraged and made attractive.

The guidebook hopes to be of value to readers by:

  • providing data on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for different transport modes in different parts of the world, and showing how to calculate greenhouse savings from various policy options
  • setting out in some detail fifteen sets of technologies and practices to better meet people’s transport needs while reducing greenhouse emissions
  • describing how these technologies and practices can be implemented, with attention to planning, local research, consultation, governance, ownership, capacity-building and funding (from both traditional and new carbon-related funding sources)
  • providing additional sources of information to enable detailed follow up.

Dario Hidalgo, director of Research and Practice at EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) reviewed the guidebook along with Todd Litman from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute and Jorge Rogat at UNEP Risoe Centre. “This definitely helps in understanding the role of transport in climate change, but more importantly, in overall quality of life and other social environmental issues,” Hidalgo said. “I hope it shifts the conversation in climate negotiations from technology only to more holistic approaches in transport.”

Hidalgo said what impresses him the most about the report is the inclusion of bicycles on the front cover of the publication. “The best detail is having bicycles as the technology of choice on the cover, and then starting the ‘technology’ chapters with the ‘walking village’ and the extraordinary story of Curitiba,” he said. “The whole document gives good attention to ‘avoid’ and ‘shift’ measures and policies, which is a real breakthrough in the climate and transport arena.”

“The Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT) partnership has been advocating it; following experts’ considerations in sustainable transport and smart growth,” Hidalgo added. “It seems, with this handbook coming from the UNEP Risoe Center, that voices are heard loud and clear.  I am pleased with that.”

Though the report works to cover all aspects of climate change mitigation through transport, it fails to address the limitations of its data. The Millennium Development Database used in the report dates back to the late 1990s, outdated in the fast-pace and ever-changing technological landscape of the 21st century. “There are several things the report can improve,” Hidalgo said. “One element is updating the data from cities, which is from 1995. Another is using good analysis more extensively, such as IEA’s reports or the World Bank’s Low Carbon Growth Studies. It will also be useful to go deeper in the foot-printing,” he concluded.

In order to understand the contribution of this guidebook on the disciplines of transportation and climate change mitigation, we spoke with Dario Hidalgo and Todd Littman. Below are our questions and their responses:

What was the biggest lesson you learned in reviewing the publication?

TL: The report contains good information on many specific strategies for increasing transport system efficiency and the various economic, social and environmental benefits they provide. Many efforts to address environmental objectives can also increase economic productivity and opportunity. A key lesson is that transportation price increases are generally not economically harmful; charging more for using roads, parking and fuel tends to increase transport system efficiency and supports the development of alternative modes and more accessible land use development, which reduces total transportation costs.

DH: The reinforcement of the idea that you need to place sustainability first, and get carbon reductions, as well.  For audiences in developing countries, the most urgent matters are air pollution, road fatalities and congestion; climate change is secondary. They feel they are not part of the [climate change] problem, but able to contribute to the solution while addressing their social and economical development needs. The authors place special interest in strategies to address development issues while reducing GHG emissions. This is in line with the “Green Economy” agenda. This graph is amazing and speaks by itself:

The graph shows the relationship between GDP and motorized personal transport.(Page 38)

Most developing cities are at the extreme left and are in a position to choose where they want to go (to super efficient Amsterdam and Tokyo, to balanced Frankfort and Munich, or to unsustainable Houston and Atlanta).

What’s the most cutting-edge idea presented in the publication?

TL: The discussion of “transit leverage” effects. High quality public transit (urban rail and bus rapid transit) are often criticized on the grounds that at best they carry only a small portion of total regional travel. But by providing a catalyst for more compact, transit-oriented development, these systems can provide much larger reductions in vehicle travel. Residents of such communities tend to drive less, own fewer vehicles, rely significantly more on walking, cycling and public transport, and benefit substantially, as a result. Our challenge is to communicate the very large impacts and benefits that can result from such projects.

DH: I really liked Paul Barter’s approach to motorized three-wheeler taxis as an acceptable and sustainable mode of transport. “The traffic (…) would be much less congested and produce much less pollution and greenhouse gas if there were fewer cars, and instead improved, cleaner technology auto-rickshaws delivered passengers to bus and train services.” [You can find more information on auto-rickshaws research by EMBARQ’s center in India here.] And very opposed to the views of “progressive” decision makers that want to see them banned off their streets.

I also liked the analysis on electric vehicles, which takes into account the source of their power.  They show that electricity can be as bad as an internal combustion engine if the source is bad.  See this graph:

(Page 129)

Do you feel it is important to shift the conversation on climate change negotiations from technology to a more “holistic” approach? Why?

TL: Absolutely. Conventional planning is reductionist: individual problems are assigned to specific professions and agencies with narrowly defined responsibilities. This can result in those organizations rationally implementing solutions that exacerbate other problems facing society, and tends to undervalue strategies that provide multiple but more modest benefits. For example, with conventional planning, transportation agencies often implement congestion reduction strategies, such as highway widening that, by increasing automobile dependency and land use sprawl, increase total accident risk, consumer transportation costs, energy consumption and pollution emissions. Similarly, reductionist planning can result in environmental agencies supporting emission reduction strategies, such as fuel efficiency mandates and alternative fuel subsidies, which, by reducing the per-kilometer cost of driving, increase total vehicle travel and so exacerbate traffic congestion, accidents and land use sprawl.

A holistic approach means, for example, that transport agencies choose the congestion reduction strategies that also help reduce energy consumption, emissions and accidents, and improve mobility for non-drivers; and environmental agencies choose the emission reduction strategies that also help reduce traffic and parking congestion, and save consumers money.

DH: Pure technology alone will not save us, as I have said before, and it is also the most expensive way to get where we want to be.  In developing cities we do not need to go to extreme congestion, pollution and road accidents of auto-dependency and then try to come back to a more balanced transport system.  We can “leapfrog.”  If we just focus on technological fixes, we will end up with “clean congestion” (the result of caring only for improving the vehicle technology, without much attention to reducing kilometers driven in individual motor vehicles through avoid and shift policies.)  Probably, as the technology evolves, emissions won’t be an issue as vehicles will be “clean,” but just changing the engine and the fuel has nothing to do with congestion. I heard the term “clean congestion” in a press conference given by Felipe Targa, deputy minister of transport of Colombia, for the FTS Forum in Latin America. I would add not just “clean congestion,” but “low carbon road fatalities” (low GHG impact, but still kills people on the road.)  If we have a holistic approach, as suggested by the editors of this publication, we not only address the global and urgent issue of climate change, but we have a more healthy, livable and happy world. And this is not more expensive, as well documented by Holger Dalkmann and Ko Sakamoto in “Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to sustainable and poverty eradication.”

What do you feel must happen in order for the transportation sector to have a true transformation with the environment and people in mind?

TL: We must do a better job of communicating the full savings and benefits to users and society that result from a more diverse and efficient transportation system. Too often people assume that efforts to increase transport system efficiency, although good for the environment, are harmful to consumers and businesses. That is not true at all. Many of the strategies described in this report benefit consumers by improving their mobility options and reducing their overall transport costs, and benefit the economy by increasing overall efficiency and reducing costs to governments and businesses.

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