Anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is a global concern and potential mitigation strategies are receiving increasing interest. Examples include thermo-economics, increasing energy efficiency, and rights-based approaches for protecting victims of climate-induced displacement. Transport accounts for a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions and remains one of few sectors where emissions are still growing. However, encouragingly, several European companies and institutions are pursuing best practices towards reducing (and reversing) emissions produced on the continent. A key challenge is determining the relative importance of pursuing a technological or a sociological solution: should we change transportation or people’s behaviour?

Electric vertical take-⁠off and landing jet Lilium

One of the main causes of anthropogenic climate change is emissions from sectors such as industry and transportation, and destruction of natural habitats. Current efforts to mitigate, reduce and reverse these trends include governmental and institutional interventions that incentivize industry and the broader population towards ‘greener’ solutions. An integral part for informing these developments are ongoing research projects in universities, which aim to develop strategies that limit the environmental impact of industry and reduce the effect of past actions.

More than 90% of the world population is breathing in polluted air. Transport accounts for more than a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, and it is one of the few industrial sectors where pollutant emissions are still growing. European companies like Volvo and Airbus are developing new ways to reduce the footprint of transportation, in means of climate impact, as well as reduction in pollutants and noise emissions.

Leading the way

Some countries are implementing regulations to change the mobility sector towards increasing the use of renewable resources. The Netherlands and Norway, for example, plan to ban the introduction of road vehicles using fossil fuels by 2025; and Norway also aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from local shipping by 40% in 2030 compared to levels in 1990. Automated cars may reduce greenhouse emission by 60%. However, since behavioural changes are difficult to predict—e.g. due to rebound effects where increased efficiency may increase usage and thus offset intended overall emission reductions—such estimations remain uncertain.

Transport sectors, such as aviation, experience a constant growth in traffic (around 5% year-on-year), motivated partially by reducing the cost of an average airplane ticket. However, the carbon dioxide footprint of an average airplane is approximately 20-fold higher than that of a modern train. Therefore, decisions made by individual citizens, such as how or where to travel during vacations, can considerably influence the impact on the environment.

On the other hand, the inherent cost (economical and environmental) of developing an efficient transport infrastructure should also be taken into account. Some geographically smaller countries like the Netherlands, Belgium or Switzerland own modern and high-quality railway networks. However, larger countries, such as Russia, may not be able to build and maintain such a dense and expensive grid throughout its territory. In such cases, the choice between the different means of transport is not so clear.

Apart from technological solutions, there are approaches to lower the demand for emission-intensive transportation. As an example, a Swiss retailer removed fresh green asparagus from overseas from its shelves, which contributed approximately a 15-fold higher climate impact than locally sourced asparagus. Cargo bicycles for last-mile deliveries are becoming popular in Germany, where 21,000 electrically assisted cargo bicycles were sold in 2017. Additionally, much effort is being put into the development of delivery bots, which may reduce environmental impact. Companies like Lilium and Uber, who are involved in urban mobility, are focusing on the ‘flying taxi’ concept, which could allow for faster commuting and potentially reduce pollutant emissions if electric propulsion systems are used. However, there may be challenges surrounding safety and noise emissions if the amount of flying taxis increases rapidly.

Changing transportation or people’s behaviour?

During the largest interdisciplinary science meeting in Europe, the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Toulouse, France this year, we organised a session on the environmental impact of transportation in Europe. In this session, leaders from industry and academia were brought together. The objective was to combine views and opinions of experts from part of European industry (Climate-KIC) and universities and research institutes (TU Delft and ETH Zurich) to discuss the impact of transportation on the climate of Europe. We were joined by Prof. Bert van Wee from TU Delft, Rahul Bansal from Climate-KIC, and Sophia Ganzeboom from ETH Zürich.

During the session, an important question raised was whether technology should be the major focus towards achieving lower emissions, or whether people’s behavior should play the major role instead. Opinions were divided. Some of the speakers noted that technology has created the present system of transportation with all its benefits, but also with all its environmental impacts. So they questioned how technology—being the origin of the environmental problems of transportation—can be seen as the future solution? Certainly, we cannot rely on technology alone as the solution.

Technology can provide new opportunities, for example, more comfortable, faster, safer, and cheaper ways of transportation. These opportunities create new demands, which in turn might increase the volume of mobility and therefore its environmental impact. Presently, demand and transportation prices are the main drivers deciding which technologies will penetrate the market and to which degree they will be used. Environmental regulations and standards set boundaries, mainly on a national level, but are still far away from guaranteeing sustainable modes of transportation.

Nevertheless, some of the speakers believed that technology has to—and will—play the most important role in the change while providing attractive, clean modes of transportation. Others believed that we need to focus on encouraging people to use less contaminating means of transportation, while changing the economical-status stereotypes related to the need of owning a car. The economic incentives alone, in the panels view, will not eliminate polluting technologies. People need to be more conscious about the environmental impacts of different options of transportation, and consider environmental aspects in their choice. However, this is a long process.

Broadening involvement

To effect lasting change, extensive social discourse is needed. Similar to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), researchers and stakeholders from all countries and all related disciplines need to contribute to consensus building and in the communication of findings to society and politics.

Natural sciences need to analyse the present system and its environmental impacts, while engineers need to provide clean technical solutions. Legal, economic and social sciences need to contribute effective ways of implementation. This can be the basis for constructive and unbureaucratic regulations and incentives for a sustainable, future transport system.

Despite the different points of view, all speakers at the ESOF session agreed that the level of accessibility is more important than the level of mobility, meaning that city and regional planning is fundamental. If workplaces, homes, shopping centers, and leisure opportunities are organised in a more decentralised (and less car-focused) way, higher accessibility can be reached without increasing transport distances. In the end, the main purpose of travelling is rarely travelling in itself, but to get access to other places, for work, leisure or services, for example. Although, we must accept that people will—and should—travel in the future because they also like to travel and explore new places.

The road ahead

During the Q&A part of the ESOF session, the audience pointed out the importance of educating people regarding the use of sustainable ways to move between places. It was also mentioned that we should not forget about local public transport and not repeat mistakes of ‘hub-based planning’, such as the railway system of France. One thing was clear from the conversation: there is a need to rethink how or even question whether we should get from point A to point B, and we need to start acting now.

External costs of transportation need to be integrated into their price, especially in the case of fossil fuels. Improving infrastructure for pedestrians and bikes users must remain a high urban planning priority, where urban planning should aim to provide maximal accessibility with minimal transport distances. Education, outreach and communication are key for discussing the pros and cons of mobility, and stimulate a sense of meaningful mobility. A sustainable transport system is not a limitation of freedom, but the road towards more fulfilling lifestyles.

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