Transportation is an industry that still relies heavily on fossil fuels, and is therefore a large emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The fossil fuels we take from the environment, such as crude oil, are turned into gasoline or diesel which we use in our vehicles. These emit the GHG emissions which are absorbed by our atmosphere. On the other hand, when we talk about sustainable transport we are looking at transportation that minimizes GHG emissions, is energy efficient, and affordable. Net Zero transport is when there are no GHG emissions, or the emissions are offset for example, by tree planting.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, stay at home mandates helped decrease the GHG emissions from the transportation sector, as people were forced to stay at home. However, as of 2021 these GHG emissions started increasing rapidly as pandemic restrictions were lifted. Estimations of GHG emissions for the transportation sector suggest that we are currently back to pre-pandemic levels.
Sustainable Modes of Transportation
Different modes of transport have different factors we need to consider when comparing how sustainable they are.
Walking and Cycling
The most sustainable forms of transport are walking and cycling as they do not emit any greenhouse gas emissions during their use. Active transport like these have benefits other than environmental, as they are beneficial to humans by keeping us moving, active and healthy. While this may be an important solution for climate change and health issues, many cities are unfortunately not prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists. Little investment is often made to improve infrastructure and adopt strategies to encourage walking and cycling and protect pedestrians and cyclists from motor vehicles. In order to boost sustainable transport, it is vital to ensure that pedestrians and cyclists are not left out of transportation budgets and infrastructure projects. If we get more people walking and cycling, this would obviously reduce traffic as well as parking congestion. With less congestion, public transit and its travel times would be more reliable. For example, in Manila (the capital of the Philippines) it is estimated that over $60 million of annual GDP is lost due to congestion, which also results in massive amounts of greenhouse gas pollution.
Another form of sustainable transportation are electric cars, which over the years have become more popular. In 2012 about 120,000 cars were sold globally, in 2021 about 120,000 are estimated to be sold in one week. Electric cars rely on electricity, as a result they are more sustainable than traditional cars that rely on fossil fuels. However a number of factors still need to be addressed to further improve the sustainability of electric vehicles. Some of these factors include considering the amount of GHGs emitted in the manufacturing process, the source of the electricity used for charging these vehicles and whether it is a “clean” electric grid, or if there is a large amount of coal burned to produce this electricity.
Another factor we need to consider is the afterlife of these vehicles, especially the batteries. Many batteries, not just those used in electric vehicles, contain raw materials such as lithium and cobalt which have negative environmental impacts and also human health concerns. These issues come from the mining and smelting of these materials which result in air pollution; as well as the large amounts of groundwater used in their production and manufacturing. Also, at the end-of-life these batteries are usually just thrown away, whereas the metals and other materials found in them could be recovered and reused, or it could be recycled. Recycling batteries however can also use large amounts of water and/or emit air pollution, so what are our other options? Possibly a better option is finding them a second life in storage or another application, such as backup storage for solar power.
Even though public transportation also runs on fossil fuels, they are more sustainable than private transportation means. “The American Public Transit Association suggests that the use of public transit saves an estimated 1.4 billion gallons of gas and 14 million tons of carbon dioxide annually”. In addition, they reduce congestion, idling, and noise.
The electrification of public transportation will contribute even further in reducing emissions, lowering noise levels and improving air quality.
Another factor to consider is remodeling infrastructure to accommodate the power needed for the transportation sector, and also to make it more efficient. For example, by including bus only lanes. By rebuilding infrastructure there is the opportunity to make it easier to use, as well as ensure reliability and meeting expected travel times.
Sustainable Transportation Projects
Changes need to be made in order to make transport more sustainable and efficient, and some places are already making these changes.
In New York the Cruise Lines have collaborated with the Green City Ferries in order to create a zero-emissions ferry to go in the New York Harbor. This ferry is meant to have zero emissions while offering a fast moving, quiet, low-vibration and fast charging vessel. It is also meant to be energy efficient, have a fast manufacturing turnaround, and reduced maintenance and operating costs.
In 2020 Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, revamped their public transportation system and won the Sustainable Transport Award for its efforts, becoming the first Southeast Asian city to receive this award. “Transjakarta” features dedicated bus lanes, off-board fare collection, fast and frequent operations, and connections to smaller vehicles that expand further into the region and residential areas.
By switching to more sustainable and low emission transport, we will not only be saving on the cost of fuel and the vehicle, but also be reducing carbon emissions, creating new green jobs, improving accessibility to reliable transportation options, and increasing our energy security and independence.
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World Economic Forum. (2022). Here are five policies to make transport more sustainable in cities. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/03/five-transit-policies-cities-should-prioritize-to-become-more-sustainable/