Grinding to a halt with fossil fuels

All governments in Australia have to start working out how city transport systems can move towards near-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Doing so is critical for mitigating dangerous climate change and boosting mobility and economic growth.

The Conversation

Over the next 50 years the world will increasingly confront a dilemma. On the one hand, the global economy and local lifestyles depend on the mobility of people and goods. On the other, that mobility depends on a diminishing supply of cheap oil and the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.

Reducing Australian carbon emissions to near zero over 50 years will require a transformation in the way we think about urban transport.

Local transport is a global problem

City transport – traffic congestion, motorways, rail services and timetables, bus routes – are local issues aren’t they? Don’t they mostly have to do with cars, trains, buses and commuting? Well, no.

Urban transport confronts a global dilemma which will not be resolved by patching up the transport systems of our cities with a new motorway link here, a new rail service there, and a few new bike paths and footpaths. The global problem is not mainly one of passenger traffic, but of goods traffic.

The mobility of people and goods worldwide is still at present almost completely (98 per cent) dependent on cheap oil, and the economies of cities are connected seamlessly with the global economy. But the supply of oil is now close to a ceiling, and the environmental impact of burning fossil fuel is unacceptable.

The annual figure for merchandise trade (intra and inter-regional) just after the global financial crisis in 2009 stood at $US12.178 trillion. That is goods in motion.

The US economic journalist Thomas Friedman wrote of the intensively organised travels of Dell digital notebook parts. Key elements of the notebook’s hardware come from the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Germany, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, India, Israel, and of course many different cities in China. This is just one example.

Almost everything we use now has a large element of mobility built into it: not only food, but whitegoods, electrical equipment, computers, clothes, furniture, cars and their components, even books. We can reasonably speak of the “embedded mobility” in almost all consumer goods.

These global movements of goods shape cities. Efficient flows of goods need unimpeded access of freight to and from the logistics nodes of warehouses and factories. Affordable space is needed for these nodes to spread out their sheds. In Europe distribution centres may be 70km away from ports. In the New York region and the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles there is “freight sprawl”. Growth in the global economy is dependent on increasing – not diminishing – mobility.

We can’t keep banking on oil

The other horn of the dilemma has two parts. First, renewed global growth is incompatible with oil dependence. The price of oil puts a cap on growth because when demand increases the price of the limited oil supply rises.

Second, dependence on oil or any fossil fuel is incompatible with saving the earth from runaway global warming. In order to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic climatic change”, the climate conference in Copenhagen in late 2009 endorsed the European Union target of restricting the average global temperature rise since the start of the industrial era to 2 degrees Celsius.

If we accept this limit, the world would have to cut CO2 emissions in the year 2050 to about 15 per cent of their year 2000 value. This ambitious reduction target would mean that global annual fossil fuel use would have to be limited to about 50 exojoules (1018 joules), rather than the 437 exojoules we used in 2010.

We cannot expect developing nations like China and India to bring their fossil-fuelled economic growth to a halt while the people of the rich nations continue to pollute much more than they do.

Emissions equality means zero-emissions transport

If emissions were to converge towards equality for all the projected 9.15 billion humans on the planet by 2050, allowable emissions would be only 0.377 tonnes per capita. That means that Australian 2009 CO2 emissions would need to be cut by a factor of 47, to near zero.

At 0.377 tonnes per capita, even industrialising countries such as China, India, and Indonesia would have to make large emissions reductions.

Since emissions from the transport sector are growing fast both in relative and absolute terms, it is unthinkable that transport can be exempt from the need to reduce emissions to near zero. Putting a price on carbon emissions by itself will not achieve this reduction.

To address the global dilemma of mobility all governments in Australia have to start thinking out how, step by step, city transport systems can move towards near-zero carbon emissions by 2050. That can only occur with reform across entire urban transport systems, both passenger and freight.

Passenger transport systems will provide for most motorised journeys with trains, light rail and buses powered by renewable energy. A much larger proportion of journeys will be made on foot or bicycle, not only in inner urban areas but also in outer suburbs. Electric cars will be needed for those who cannot use public or active transport. They too will be powered by renewable energy.

Long-distance freight will move mostly by rail. Local freight will still depend on trucks and vans, but these will need to be electrically powered. Today’s motorways will be used mostly for freight transport.

Gradually the shape of our cities will need to become more polycentric, bringing services and jobs – and high quality commercial hubs – closer to where people live. The upside of such reforms is a healthier lifestyle and pleasanter cities with a fairer distribution of public transport access.

The downside of not making the move is reduced mobility for most, and continued downward pressure on economic growth.

This article owes a debt to the work of the many authors published in Transforming Urban Transport, Routledge, 2012, particularly Kevin O'Connor, Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery.

Nicholas Low is a Professor in Urban and Environmental Planning at Melbourne University.

This article was originally published by The Conversation. Republished with permission.

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