The transport sector needs to transform itself in favor of sustainability

Even more important than the transition to electric mobility, for this sector to be truly sustainable, a balance must be struck between environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability.

The topic of the transport sector was the order of the day during one of the sessions of the concluded 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). According to reports presented at the event, this sector contributes to a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

It is because of these alarming figures that several nations, cities, automobile companies, financial institutions and other key stakeholders in development decided to sign the COP26 Declaration on Transport, which aims to align the sector’s activities to maintain the 1.5 degree threshold.

This document and the COP26 event envisage accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and phasing out the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2040, while the nations with the world’s largest vehicle fleets committed to reach this target by 2035. These are some of the constraints to achieving these targets are still too great.

First, and most importantly, the two largest automobile companies and the three largest automobile markets in the U.S., Germany and China have not signed the declaration, so a significant portion of the source of carbon emissions remains outside their purview and continues to affect projects that seek to achieve sustainability.

In addition, a fact that generates the rejection of environmental experts and activists is that proposals and events such as COP26 focus too much on e-mobility, a solution they consider “elitist”, since access to this type of vehicles is not within the reach of citizens with average incomes.

Third, several climate activists have also expressed dissatisfaction that COP26 continues to focus on announcements and promises, when the science is clear on the need for immediate and concrete action.

Finally, while the summit enshrines critical, carbon-intensive sub-segments of the sector, such as aviation and shipping, it makes no considerable mention of some of the crucial elements of a sustainable mobility ecosystem, such as active transport, public transport and non-motorized modes of transport, such as walking and cycling.

These issues point to a challenge at the policy level in how “sustainable transport” is perceived by key target influencers, as well as how this perception is translated into policies, practices and plans to promote sustainability in the transport ecosystem.

Arguably, sustainable transport has become analogous to electric mobility in the policy language of several countries, which is a worrying development. The underlying challenge is that the transition to electric mobility is only one element of a broader systemic change that is necessary to enable a climate-friendly, socio-environmentally sustainable and resilient transport ecosystem.

Experts, however, point out that efficient climate action requires not only a transition to a more sustainable transport system, but what is really required is a transformation of the mobility system itself, which means that it will not be enough for all new vehicles to be electric and for internal combustion engine vehicles to be phased off the road.

Traffic congestion, travel time, infrastructure quality, affordability of travel, accessibility and inclusiveness of transport solutions, among others, are at the core of this sector. These problems will continue to exist even if the entire vehicle fleet is electrified. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that a complete transformation of the transport system is contemplated and implemented.

To achieve a truly sustainable transportation system, it is extremely critical to adopt a holistic approach to strategy, planning and implementation of policy-based solutions. This implies that the entire transportation system is clearly understood and therefore addressed accordingly from a sustainability standpoint. 

At a superficial level, sustainability can be considered environmental, social and economic in nature. Environmental sustainability includes not only mitigation of vehicle and other lifecycle emissions, but also climate change adaptation, biodiversity conservation, control of various types of pollution, circular economy and other environmentally related facets of the transportation system. Social sustainability implies that workers and communities that depend on the transportation sector for their lives and livelihoods are taken care of when undertaking any activity aimed at environmental sustainability, such as the transition to electric mobility.

Economic sustainability, broadly speaking, implies that, for all parties involved, developments in the transport sector are producing “reasonable” economic benefits. For consumers, this could be affordability, accessibility and good quality transport services. For businesses and investors, it could mean profits and return on investment. And for the state, it should ensure a steady flow of revenue. However, when this delicate balance is broken, someone’s greed causes stakeholders such as consumers, especially the economically weaker sections, to compromise on quality and opt for the cheapest possible mode.

Low-income households in many parts of India spend a considerable amount of their income on public transport, ranging from 10% in some cases to over 35%. Truly sustainable transport will be one that achieves the environmental goals of emissions mitigation by providing lower-priced and affordable means of transport for poor households.

In particular, to transform the transport sector in a sustainable manner, the guiding principles of “avoid, change, improve” can be adopted. Avoidance” implies that, as far as possible, we should incentivize people to avoid transport. The future of work and the digital revolution have great potential to reduce work-related travel, for example. This improves the efficiency of the transport system overall. The “shift” implies that for unavoidable travel needs, the effort should be to switch to more efficient and sustainable modes, such as walking, cycling, or using efficient public transport such as rail, among others. This will have a positive impact on the efficiency of each unavoidable trip. And finally, “improve” implies undertaking a continuous process of implementing policies and plans to improve vehicle efficiency, including efficiency standards, electrification of vehicle fleets, and integration of renewable or hydrogen-powered vehicles.

To build a more sustainable future for our children and the next generations, everyone’s participation is essential. That is why at eSmart Recycling we believe in partnerships between the public and private sector. We could not deliver equipment to at-risk kids and families in the same way if many players in the community were not involved; from our corporate partners, to our nonprofit partners.  

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