After COP26, transport has reached an important milestone in the global climate conversation. The electric revolution is underway and it’s now a centerpiece of climate action.
Sustainable transport’s turn in the spotlight coincides with a broader acknowledgement that climate and development goals are inseparable. “We don’t have the luxury of thinking it’s one or the other,” said Mari Pangestu, Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships at the World Bank. “The mindset has changed.”
Sustainable mobility, not just focused on vehicle types but also including active mobility, road safety, freight, land management, data insights, the electrical grid, and much more, is a natural bridge between climate and development goals. Global leaders and experts from around the world met February 16-17 for the 19th annual Transforming Transportation conference, co-hosted by WRI and the World Bank. The theme this year was “climate-centered mobility for a sustainable recovery” and focused on taking COVID recovery as a starting point for raising post-COP26 ambitions in transport. (Read day one coverage here.)
“Reaching far higher should be our aim for COP27,” said Rogier van den Berg, Acting Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “Really thinking how we can come together as a community around transportation and bring that systems approach… We can’t think about transforming transportation without providing access to all. That’s a development necessity.”
A Window of Opportunity
Added to this change in mindset and technologies, is the unique dynamic of COVID recovery. In many countries, government stimulus packages are providing new financial support for transport. “The money is there, but the question is, where is the money going to go,” said Stientje van Veldhoven, Vice President and Regional Director for Europe at WRI. “The design of investments is going to define where this world is going to go in terms of transportation.”
Prioritizing is critical for developing countries especially, said Binyam Reja, Acting Global Director for Transport at the World Bank. “There’s also quite a lot to be done in terms of generating additional financing, additional revenue to support the decarbonization of transport or to make transport more resilient.”
But transport’s co-benefits across sectors should not be forgotten. In FY21, 59% of the World Bank’s investment in transport had climate co-benefits, said Reja. And Ma. Sheilah Gaabucayan-Napalang, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Project Development with the Philippines Department of Transportation, noted that she sees the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in their transport goals as just a co-benefit. “What we’ve submitted is really an improvement in public transportation, which will really be an improvement in the experience of passengers,” she said.
Transport’s impact on building climate resilience is also multifaceted. There is the physical resilience of infrastructure, said François Bausch, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Mobility and Public Works for Luxembourg. But there is also the societal resilience that accessible, high-quality transport can provide. Safe, affordable ways to reach jobs and services improve a society’s capacity to adjust to change.
Reja noted that the vulnerability of transport systems and supply chains has been exposed by the disruptions of COVID-19, and that resilience needs more attention at COP27, especially for developing countries.
With such rapid changes underway, high-quality research on what’s working, what’s not and why is very valuable. Three young researchers, Susan Gichuna, Tamara Kerzhner and Wei Wei, were awarded the 2021 Lee Schipper Memorial Scholarship. Each received a grant to support their work analyzing the effects of climate change on urban transport in Nairobi, investigating the impact of labor relations on the distribution of informal transport networks in African cities, and examining demand management strategies to support mass electric vehicle adoption. (Apply for the 2022 scholarship here.)
The COVID pandemic has created a natural laboratory as well. In many places, walking and cycling have increased dramatically, said Claudia Adriazola-Steil, Acting Director of Urban Mobility and Director of Health & Road Safety at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Since March 2020, over 200 cities have launched more than 400 bicycle and pedestrian interventions.
The surge is an opportunity to learn more about active mobility. Data gathered by smart bike light company See.Sense in London, for example, showed that women were taking longer journeys just to stay on the dedicated cycle lanes, said Irene McAleese, Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer. They also observed much higher swerving and braking in lanes that were just painted on compared to dedicated, segregated lanes. “We’re all about gathering powerful data insights that will help cities make that transformation in terms of sharing space,” McAleese said.
“If you make cycling safer for women, you are making it safer for everyone,” said WRI’s Adriazola-Steil. She urged governments to consider several key design changes to make cycling safer and more accessible by everyone, as well as dedicating at least 20% of new transport investment flows to active mobility projects.
“The Cusp of Transformational Change”
“As the climate crisis continues to unfold, made worse by unsustainable transportation systems, we feel strongly that our focus should be less on issuing declarations and more on taking action to mitigate and adapt to this crisis,” said President David W. Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia. He noted that his country of more than 600 islands but just 700km2 of land mass is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels for mobility, 30% of imports are petroleum products, inefficient second-hand vehicles dominate the market, and sea-level rise threatens most existing infrastructure. “It’s an existential threat,” he said.
Watch full plenary and technical breakout sessions.
The challenges, at the global and local scales, are large. But panelists also reiterated the huge opportunity in sustainable mobility right now.
“We have not seen change or innovation like this in many, many decades,” said Daniel Sperling, Founding Director & Professor, Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California, Davis. “This is a really big deal, but there’s no turning back – it’s the right path.”
“I really want to convey the message that the end of the internal combustion engine, when we switch to 100% zero-emission vehicles, should not be a taboo anymore in our society,” said Monica Araya, a Distinguished Fellow for the ClimateWorks Foundation’s Drive Electric Campaign. “It’s an opportunity.”
A study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and the University of California, Davis, found that transport demand is set to double by 2050, and to meet that demand requires investments in electric vehicles and compact cities, which can reduce our energy demand by as much as 40%. “Essentially we need to keep the number of vehicles on the road to a minimum and electrify the rest,” said Heather Thompson, CEO of ITDP. “If we choose to concentrate our investment in electrification of public transportation, then we will create a more equitable electric future.”
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Sperling. “We are on the cusp of transformational changes in vehicles and also mobility… The transition is already underway.”
Schuyler Null is Communications Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Hillary Smith is Communications Specialist for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Sophia Vitello is Communications and Engagement Assistant for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.