Eric Doherty: Big Auto fails to push transportation transformation off COP26 Agenda

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      The COP26 climate negotiations were a fiasco, with industry lobbyists coming close to gutting everything worthwhile.

      Big Auto tried to keep the focus of the transportation declaration exclusively on electric cars, but in the end failed—or at least didn’t succeed completely.

      The policy paper title "COP26 Declaration on Accelerating the Transition to 100% Zero Emission Cars and Vans" makes clear the extremely narrow focus the auto and oil industries wanted. However, after a public plea from a European Union official and interventions from public-transit and cycling organizations, the following text was added:

      “We recognise that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport, as well as addressing the full value chain impacts from vehicle production, use and disposal.”

      Interestingly, this text covers the carbon footprint of automobiles, “the full value chain impacts”, rather than just tailpipe emissions. Electric cars are not zero emission, a significant proportion of a car’s carbon footprint is from initial manufacturing and replacement parts, like new tires.

      The brief COP26 Glasgow Agreement does not even include the word transportation. The transportation declaration, and the ideas being considered by experts and the public, is what the battle between automakers and sustainable transportation groups at COP26 was about.

      Roadmap to fewer cars—not just new (electric) cars

      An important new report on transportation and climate was also released at COP26. The "TUMI Transport Outlook 1.5° C: A Global Scenario to Decarbonise Transport" lays out a global scenario for reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) pollution from transportation rapidly to stay within the carbon budget needed to limit global heating to 1.5°C. It aims to provide a “clear-cut path to transformation, one which is backed up with 'hard' numbers for policymakers around the world” who are committed to complying with the Paris Agreement.

      A crucial near-term action is reducing automobile travel in urban areas, labelled "urban policies" in the diagram below.


      The Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) report calls for transformative change in transportation systems, rather than just switching to electric cars. The scenario for staying below the Paris Agreement target of 1.5° C of heating includes:

      • Ending sales of new internal-combustion engine vehicles by 2030, sooner in wealthy countries.
      • Increasing walking and cycling to 50 percent by 2030 by creating routes for bicycles, rolling, and walking as good as Amsterdam or Copenhagen in cities everywhere.
      • Doubling public-transit capacity by 2030, and ensuring transit riders don’t get stuck in traffic by creating transit lanes.
      • Shifting freight from trucks to rail and electrifying at least 70 percent of railways by 2030.
      • Powering transportation with renewable electricity via batteries or direct connection, using inefficient hydrogen and electrofuels only where really needed. Biofuels from energy crops such as canola are not used.

      TUMI explains these points in this short video.

      Transportation is one of the biggest sources of GHG pollution globally, and the fastest growing. The TUMI report notes that 65 percent of oil is used directly for transportation globally, and that about a quarter of energy-related CO2 is from transportation.

      The report states that “Urgent and profound measures must be taken because the emissions reduction window will soon close”. Reducing travel by car and air is a crucial part of that.

      Because “electric aviation realistically does not play a role in large amounts of carbon reduction before 2040”, electric passenger trains and highway buses will have to replace a large percentage of short- and medium-distance flights, as well as replacing many longer car trips. Electrifying the main railways in Canada and the U.S. would be a monumental project and employ thousands of construction workers for at least a decade.

      The TUMI report groups Canada, the U.S., and Mexico together, and for the 1.5°C scenario, the reduction in car travel needed is substantial. In 2030, passenger kilometres travelled are 22 percent below 2019 levels and 43 percent lower in 2050. This is comparable with the Canadian province of British Columbia’s target of a 25 percent reduction in light-duty vehicle travel by 2030. Other jurisdictions, such as California, have less ambitious traffic-reduction targets.

      A turning point

      The COP26 transportation declaration, and the TUMI Transport Outlook, say a major transformation of our transportation systems is urgently needed. But government policy, and public opinion, seems to be in an unstable state of cognitive dissonance. Many of us know transformative changes are needed but want to believe that the status quo with some electric cars and a few bike lanes is sufficient.

      In Metro Stockholm, home of Greta Thunberg, instead of funding the necessary transformation to fewer cars the Swedish government is spending billions of Euros to expand the suburban freeway network. In Canada and the U.S., even states and provinces with ambitious traffic-reduction targets are proceeding with billions of dollars of highway and freeway expansion projects.

      It takes a lot of mental energy to defend wildly inconsistent positions, like spending billions to widen highways when you are planning for much less traffic. How long can this go on?

      George Monbiot’s response to COP26 suggests that we are near a societal tipping point and that social convention can be flipped to “become our greatest source of power, normalising what now seems radical”.

      Are you ready to help make a world with far fewer cars seem like common sense rather than an unrealistic dream?

      Eric Doherty is a registered professional planner and a transportation planning consultant based in Victoria.