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Baby Steps on Eliminating Transport Emissions Still Leave Big Carbon Footprint

Wednesday was Transport Day at COP26; and promising corporate and government pledges came together from airlines, automakers and the shipping industry. But the question remains: Are we doing enough, fast enough?

Good news this week in the fight to eliminate transport emissions — or, at the very least, good first steps. Here are a few highlights on what this could mean for the carbon impact of transport in a variety of areas …

Land

Yesterday, at COP26, over 100 national governments, cities, states and major businesses signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and worldwide by 2040. At least 13 nations also committed to end the sale of fossil-fuel-powered heavy-duty vehicles by 2040.

Headline signatories included US automakers Ford and General Motors, European car giants Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, British automaker Jaguar Land Rover, and China’s BYD; the world's second-most populous country, India; corporate fleet owners and purchasers including INGKA Group/IKEA, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Unilever; Dutch fleet-management giant LeasePlan, which rents 1.7 million cars in 30 countries; and rideshare platform Uber.

But notably absent from the Declaration were the world's top two carmakers — Toyota and Volkswagen — as well as major car markets China, the US (also the two highest carbon-emitting countries) and Germany.

According to the International Energy Agency, transportation is responsible for 24 percent of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. Road vehicles — cars, trucks, buses and two- and three-wheelers — account for nearly three-quarters of that.

For GM, the Transport Day commitment expedited its previous climate-action timeline — expanding from eliminating tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035 to a transition to 100 percent zero-emission vehicles by that time.

“We know climate action is a priority and every company must push itself to decarbonize further and faster. That’s why GM announced our Science Based Targets, as well as plans to become carbon neutral in our global products and operations by 2040,” said Kristen Siemen, GM’s VP and Chief Sustainability Officer. “We have committed to invest $35 billion in electric and autonomous vehicles and plan to introduce more than 30 electric vehicle models globally by 2025. To get communities ready, we are also investing nearly $750M through 2025 in order to create more access to public, home and work chargers. All of this builds on our Equitable Climate Action initiative, which aims to ensure the all-electric future is inclusive for our current and future workforce, customers, and communities.”

While this is indeed noteworthy, the absence of some of the world’s biggest emitters is problematic — as is a lack of corresponding commitment from governments to ensure the necessary charging and grid infrastructure will be built to support electric vehicles.

“The message for decision makers is: We need to make sure that we start normalizing that by 2035, we stop selling petrol and diesel cars,” said Monica Araya, a ClimateWorks Distinguished Fellow and part of the Steering Committee for the global Drive Electric Campaign. “The point is getting used to the idea of having a calendar so we can shift to zero-emission options in all segments. This is not just for advanced markets in developed countries — it’s also for developing economies, because we know the worst pollution is there.”

Araya also stressed that during the transition, developing countries must not become the dumping grounds for old technology from the richest ones — and instead, they should be seen as drivers of transformational change.

Air

Meanwhile, airlines from around the world have pledged their support for novel propulsion technologies such as electric and hydrogen-powered planes; while others have made new commitments to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

20 airline members of the World Economic Forum’s Target True Zero initiative committed to utilizing technology — such as electric, hydrogen and hybrid aircraft — to address the climate crisis. The development and delivery of novel propulsion technologies, powered by sustainable energy sources, were highlighted as key towards helping the aviation industry minimize its environmental impact.

“The adoption of these technologies into the global fleet — through either new aircraft design or the retrofitting of conventional aircraft — can help reduce the climate impact of our operations while preserving the immense economic and social benefits that aviation brings to the world,” the statement said.

The signatory airlines — Aero, Air New Zealand, Air Nostrum, Alaska Airlines, Amelia, ASL Aviation Holdings, Braathens Regional Airlines, easyJet, Finistair, Icelandair, Iskwew Air, Loganair, Mokulele, Ravn Alaska, SoundsAir, Southern Airways Express, Surf Air Mobility, Viva Aerobus, Waltzing Matilda Aviation and Xwing — operate over 800 aircraft and carry over 177 million passengers on 1.8 million flights a year and hope to use this influence to create market demand for new types of aircraft.

Key commitments:

  • Short-haul flights first — Industry leaders aim for 30 percent of the aircraft serving shorter-range routes added to their fleets from 2030 to be powered by new technologies such as hydrogen and electric power, with longer-range aircraft to be added once this becomes technologically and economically viable.

  • Partnership — The signatories called on aerospace manufactures to prioritize innovation that will allow them to meet these goals.

  • Public-private cooperation - The Target True-Zero airlines also urged governments to do their part in supporting the transition to cleaner aviation. Key calls included providing incentives for operators to adopt these technologies and addressing the infrastructure issues needed to support their use in airports across the world.

“We know that the journey to decarbonising the aviation industry is not something that one airline can tackle alone,” said David Morgan, Chief Operational Integrity & Safety Officer at Air New Zealand. “Initiatives like True Target Zero are vitally important to share information, learnings and accelerate the adoption of zero-emission aircraft around the globe. Air New Zealand is thrilled to be on board with other industry leaders and we look forward to working towards our net-zero goals together.”

Along with the Target True Zero members’ commitment, the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) announced it has opened to new members for the first time.

The Alliance was launched in April by RMI and the EDF, to pool the purchasing power of fuel buyers to stimulate the scaling of supply chains for alternative fuels and to encourage policy support. Its founding members included Bank of America, Boeing, Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, McKinsey and Company, Meta, Microsoft, Netflix and Salesforce. As of this week, United Airlines, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and Amazon Air — the e-commerce giant’s aviation arm — have been added to the roster.

But until sustainability issues surrounding biofuels can be resolved — and promising solutions made from captured carbon, from startups such as Air Company and LanzaTech, can be scaled — we’re still largely flying blind on low-carbon air travel in the short term.

Land, air and sea

In other news, nine major companies — including Amazon, IKEA, Inditex, Michelin, Patagonia and Unilever — announced that they will shift 100 percent of their ocean freight to zero-carbon vessels by 2040.

But environmental groups Pacific Environment and Stand.earth, which lead the Ship It Zero coalition, said the switch needed to happen much faster — that shortening the timeline to 2030 would ensure the shipping industry did its "fair share" to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, not to mention a current snafu facing the industry.

"While we thank Amazon, IKEA, Patagonia and other retailers for making a historic commitment to zero-emissions ocean cargo shipping, this commitment does not address our current port pollution crisis,” said Dawny’all Heydari, Ship It Zero Campaign Lead at Pacific Environment. “Right now, due to COVID-19 and holiday-related trends, an unprecedented number of fossil-fueled cargo container ships await entry into ports, harming frontline communities and our climate with deadly air pollution and greenhouse gases. We need companies to take accountability now — by committing to 100 percent zero-emissions ocean cargo shipping this decade.”


Again, all of this represents a promising start, but we all know how long it takes for large companies and countries to put their words into action — and when it comes to avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change, “better late than never” might not be accurate.

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