Ricardo Quarterly

Driving forward sustainable mobility

05 Oct 2022

Transport poses some pressing economic, engineering and environmental challenges.

Ricardo’s Strategy, Technology & Innovation Director, Adrian Greaney, looks at the issues around reducing transport emissions – and the opportunities that might also emerge.

The transport sector accounts for around 20 per cent of global CO₂ emissions, making it the second-largest carbon-polluting sector worldwide. 

Given such an inauspicious starting point, can the sector hope to support the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and strive for net zero?

It’s certainly possible. But it calls for a holistic, cross-modal approach. It  will require smarter, optimised transport networks featuring widespread electrification, access to renewable fuels, and a more efficient use of energy and resources throughout the value chain. 

What, then, are the drivers that could see all of this happen?


Improving air quality

It is widely recognised that transport emissions harm both human health and our natural environment. To date, the primary response has been through legislation, usually via regulation targeting vehicle tailpipe emissions, plus the sporadic use of targeted local policies or controls, such as congestion charging schemes in major urban centres, or the Low Emissions Zones (LEZ) and Clean Air Zones (CAZ) that cover specific areas or routes. 

According to the European Environment Agency, between 1990 and 2017 the transport sector in Europe has successfully reduced emissions of carbon monoxide and non-methane volatile organic compounds (both by around 87 per cent), sulphur oxides (66 per cent) and nitrogen oxides (40 per cent).

Since 2000, there has also been a reduction in particulate matter emissions, reported at 44 per cent for PM2.5 and 35 per cent for PM10. 
(Particulate matter (PM) refers to microscopic particles within the air made of chemical compounds and materials, some of which may be toxic. These can be categorised by size, such as <2.5mm in diameter (PM2.5) or <10mm diameter (PM10)).

Furthermore, Europe's forthcoming Euro 7 emissions legislation – which set a maximum standard for emissions from new cars and vehicles - will push further improvements in tailpipe emissions and set a benchmark for other countries to follow. At the same time, research within the industry continues to focus on reducing emissions from sources such as brakes and tyres. 

More fundamentally, addressing congestion in urban environments through the provision of shared mobility options, multi-mode transit systems and wider use of price incentive schemes will also contribute air quality improvements.


Looking beyond tailpipe emissions

But the term ‘zero emission vehicle’ is entirely misleading since it overlooks the full life cycle of the product's environmental impact. 

Life cycle impact refers to the energy and emissions (including CO2) released during the manufacture, transport, use and disposal of a vehicle.

According to Mike Berners-Lee, in his book ‘How Bad are Bananas?’, a medium specification Ford Mondeo requires 17 tonnes of CO2e to manufacture and 27 tonnes of CO2e to drive an average 11,481 kilometres per year over 13.9 years, the typical age of cars at scrappage.

In future, decarbonised electricity will power vehicles with fewer carbon emissions. But the manufacture of electric vehicles (EVs) will continue to be carbon intensive for some time given that we must factor in the operation of power stations for electricity supply and the manufacture of components such as traction batteries.

An EV will produce around 18 tonnes of CO2e over its life; for a battery EV, 46 per cent of its total full life carbon footprint will derive from the production process and before it has travelled a single kilometre.

Global collaboration

International collaboration will be critical in the push to transform the transport sector.

As an example, at the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference (COP24), the Governments of Poland and the UK launched the ‘Driving Change Together Partnership’ as a platform to promote and recognise e-mobility as an essential part of the solution to climate change.

More recent COP gatherings have focused on moving transportation away from traditional fossil fuels and towards electrification, with sessions dedicated to discussing equitable green transport in the developing world, for example.


Changing consumer behaviour

In 2020, the sudden introduction of COVID restrictions presented an unprecedented opportunity to test how different travel habits could also have an impact on emissions. 

The European Economic Area’s air quality tracker showed that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant commonly associated with road transport, fell significantly where strict lockdown measures were implemented. 

Indeed, during the April 2020 lockdown, concentrations of NO2 declined by 61 per cent in Spain and 51 per cent in France.

Yet, as the measures were eased and road traffic increased, urban pollution levels simply began to return to levels closer to those observed prior to the pandemic. 

The experience proved that behavioural change is possible and could make a significant difference. It presented governments, authorities and agencies with evidence of how much could potentially be achieved through changing our habits rather than just technologies.


Adopting multi-modal transport

To change those habits, we need to provide efficient, integrated and seamless transitions between modes of personal and commercial travel.

This has an element of carrot and stick. On the one hand, there is a need to ensure people have access to services they can depend upon, backed by dependable real-time information and appropriate physical infrastructure. Just achieving this will require deeper levels of collaboration between service providers and transport authorities than we already see, even in the some of world's most integrated urban transport networks. 

There will also need to be long-term commitments from all parties to provide the right incentives around, say, costs and service availability, as well as communication over sustainability or health benefits. 

On the other, the introduction or expansion of fees levied on vehicles that continue contribute to poor air quality, or on journeys that can be made just as easily by more sustanable means can help to encourage change by compulsion.

Whichever approaches are taken, operators of future transportation systems will be able to capitalise on the advances in digital infrastructure and data resources to provide insight.

While we may not be able fully to reverse the impact of the fossil fuel age within our lifetime, sustainable mobility solutions give us the opportunity to improve the quality of life for the next generation.

It presents a hugely complex challenge, requiring transformations in energy supply, infrastructure, technology and human behaviour.

There is no single ‘silver bullet’. Instead, we have the pressing need to progress multiple paths towards a sustainable future.


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