Transportation, the great protagonist of climate change

Transportation, the great protagonist of climate change

May 16, 2019

Transportation, the great protagonist of climate change

There is no lack of opportunity today to travel from one place to another or transport goods across nations and continents, but this traffic has a high environmental cost and contributes to climate change.

Around 7 giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (GtCO2eq) in greenhouse gases, virtually a quarter (23%) of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, is the huge burden borne by the environment due to transportation according to data reported in the Fifth Assessment Report (5AR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that constantly evaluates the scientific data available on climate change. “Without aggressive, long-term intervention policies, transportation-related emissions are projected to double by 2050” the report’s authors warn, pointing out that emissions are increasing in transportation faster than in any other energy-related sector. 

Emissions flying high

The data are clear: if aviation were a country, it would be among the top 10 in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the emissions of a single return flight between London and New York are the same as those produced on average by a European citizen to heat their home for a whole year. Those related to air transportation now account for over 2% of global emissions, a 70% increase is projected by 2020 compared to 2005 and a further increase from 300% to 700% by 2050 according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Among the reasons behind this growth, according to some experts, is the privileged treatment the United Nations grants to airlines, exempting them from fuel taxes and compliance with set limits on greenhouse gas emissions. At a time of growing interest in environmental policies, however, these figures have not escaped European citizens, as shown, for example, by the Swedish “Flygskam” (literally “ashamed of flying”) campaign, which is encouraging more and more people to choose alternative and less polluting alternatives to flying. How can air transportation be further improved to avoid impacting on climate change? For example with better traffic management that includes more direct routes and flights at optimal altitudes and speeds, or even through improved aircraft design that would allow for 40-50% gains in fuel efficiency between 2030 and 2050.

From a vicious circle to a virtuous circle

Regardless of the means of transportation chosen, travel and climate change are strongly interconnected and the consequences of this close relationship are already visible to all in the form of a real vicious circle. 

Because of climate change, which is largely linked to the transportation sector,  we are moving towards a scenario that negatively affects the movement of goods and people. For example, the increasingly frequent hurricanes could increase the number of flight delays and cancellations, droughts may make it necessary to use smaller vessels for transportation by sea within countries, while frequent storms could affect the cost of ocean crossings. 

There is more. Road transportation could be affected by the reduced quality of road surfaces following extreme climate events, such as heavy rain or heat waves, while the stability of rail transportation could be negatively affected by rain, changes in sea levels and extreme hot-cold cycles. Many important reasons to break a vicious circle between transportation and climate change to add to the many others that support this change of course. Reducing road traffic would also cut the number of accidents, noise and emissions of fine particles that are so harmful to health, which would also benefit from people choosing to travel on foot, by bicycle or by public transport whenever possible.   

Europe moving sustainable mobility

Europe takes the commitment to the environment and in particular policies aimed at tackling climate change, for example by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, very seriously. 

In fact Europe wants to achieve a circular, low-carbon economy by 2050, by setting clear objectives:  compared to 1990 levels, the aim is to cut emissions by at least 20% by 2020, 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. As a report by the European Environmental Agency (European Environmental Agency EEA) states, the right path has been taken, as the figures for 2017 show a 23.6% drop compared to 1990. The forecasts for 2017, however, seem to mark a change of direction, with an increase in emissions equal to 0.6% compared to 2016. 


A closer look reveals that transportation  is one of the sectors in which greenhouse gas  emissions are a problem. In fact, in Europe, transportation-related emissions are still higher today than in 1990 and road transportation is king, being responsible for over 70% of the sector’s emissions. 

Faced with these figures, the European Commission launched an ad hoc strategy in 2016 to move toward low-emission mobility that will allow Member States to remain competitive and respond to the growing need to move goods and people while respecting the environment. Many measures are planned: from increasing the efficiency of the transportation system to creating vehicles that are increasingly close to the “zero emissions” concept, including the development of alternative energies for the sector.

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