Eric Doherty: International Energy Agency report should spell end of urban highway and airport expansion

Policies discouraging car use in cities should lead to lower rates of car ownership

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      In preparation for the COP 26 climate negotiations in November, the rich world’s energy agency has released a report with big implications for the future of transportation. One of the conclusions is that we need to reduce the use of cars in cities—not just fossil-fuel cars, but electric cars too.

      The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a conservative organization with close ties to the oil and gas industry and always lags behind on climate action. Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector shows the establishment is acknowledging some of what leading research groups were calling for a decade or more ago.

      Most of the headlines about Net Zero by 2050 have focused on the IEA’s groundbreaking call for an immediate end to investment in new fossil-fuel supply projects to limit global heating to 1.5° C, as well as its overreliance on biofuels and the inadequacy of government targets.

      Despite Net Zero by 2050 being lacking in details, it is a major step forward for climate action in transportation. The report guarantees that reducing automobile dependency and flying will be on the agenda in a significant way at COP 26 and beyond.

      Only two billion cars?

      The report calls for reducing “the use of cars in cities and overall car ownership levels” as well as replacing many short-haul flights with improved passenger rail. The recommendation for population control on cars is particularly interesting coming from such a conservative organization.

      As should be expected, the actions that the IEA calls for are inadequate. They assume the number of cars will increase from 1.2 billion in 2020 to about two billion in in 2050, even with measures designed to reduce the number of cars.

      The number of cars on the planet may have already peaked, as many cities reallocate space from cars to transit, walking, and cycling. If we have not already reached peak car, it needs to happen soon—this planet can’t support two billion cars.

      Policies discouraging car use in cities lead to lower car ownership.
      International Energy Agency

      The report puts a lot of emphasis on "behavioural change" but clarifies that this is mostly about collective action. The report states that “three‐quarters of the emissions reductions from behavioural changes in the NZE [net zero GHG emissions by 2050 scenario] are achieved through targeted government policies”.

      Wealthier countries like Canada are expected to do more to reduce “excessive or wasteful energy consumption” than the rest of the world.

      Examples of ways to reduce wasteful energy consumption include reducing speed limits on highways to 100 km/h.

      The IEA sees buses playing a big role in the next 15 years, which is understandable given how long it takes to build rail transit. The report envisions as much as half the reduction in business-as-usual automobile trips replaced with bus trips in some cities. Cycling, walking, and other forms of public transit replace the balance of car trips.

      The report indicates that meeting the greenhouse-gas reduction targets required to avoid catastrophic global heating without reducing automobile dependency would be extremely difficult.

      The IEA asks rhetorically, “Are net‐zero emissions by 2050 still possible without behavioural change?” The answer it gives is that the “share of EVs in the global car fleet would need to increase from around 20% in 2030 to 45% to ensure the same level of emissions reductions” (See Figure 2.27 from the report below). In other words, no—strong action to reduce automobile dependency (and flying) is essential. Note that the orange dot in the chart below indicates 2020 electric car usage is about one percent.

      Without behavioural changes, there will need to be a much higher share of low-carbon technologies in use by 2030 to stave off global heating.
      International Energy Agency

      End of airport expansion

      The modest level of behaviour change envisioned by the IEA is illustrated by the example of air travel, which “is assumed to switch to high‐speed rail on existing or potential routes only where trains could offer a similar journey time”. Sleeper trains, which are already replacing some air travel in Europe, are not even mentioned.

      This report should result in the cancellation of airport expansion plans everywhere, as the IEA seems to call for the number of flights to be capped at 2019 levels. Apparently, the idea is that short-haul flights will be drastically reduced and air travel will become more and more oriented to longer flights.

      The report assumes “comprehensive government policies” can keep the increase in passenger kilometres to about three percent per year, compared to about twice that rate over the last decade.

      If even the IEA is calling for an end to the increase in the number of flights, and more balanced voices are calling for a steep reduction in the number of flights, we should be asking why our governments are spending billions on airport expansion.

      Steel and concrete

      Much of the world’s steel and concrete goes into making cars, parking structures, highways, and airports. The IEA’s report states that “Steel and cement are the two main components of virtually all infrastructure projects, but they are also among the most challenging sectors to decarbonise."

      The IEA report is clear that the overall carbon footprint of transportation needs to be considered, not just tailpipe emissions. The obvious conclusion is that governments need to stop spending billions of dollars and using millions of tonnes of concrete and steel on highway and airport expansion. We can only guess if the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions scenario includes this obvious step. The IEA did not reply to my request for an interview or further information.

      Rail electrification

      People in North America are often not aware that most European and Asian freight and passenger trains are already powered by electricity, while almost all of ours still run on diesel. The NZE scenario includes increasing the percentage of electrified rail lines from 34 percent now to 47 percent in 2030.

      Canada’s fair share of this would likely include electrifying both transcontinental rail lines, and the busiest lines connecting to the U.S., within 15 years. This is a construction project of similar scale to the oilsands at the peak of investment, except the jobs and economic benefits would be spread from coast to coast.

      The IEA also calls for “large‐scale investment in all regions in track, control systems, rolling stock modernisation and combined freight facilities to improve speed and flexibility for just‐in‐time logistical operations and thus support a shift of freight from road to rail, especially for container traffic”.

      That is, the answer to the challenge of electrifying long-distance trucking is largely to improve rail transportation. Like rail electrification this implies an investment of tens of billions every year for well over a decade, and the creation of thousands of construction jobs requiring similar qualifications as fossil fuel infrastructure or highway construction.


      In a blog post, Fatih Birol Executive Director of the IEA, stated that the “Net Zero Roadmap is designed to illuminate the essential debates on energy and climate in societies around the world and inform policy makers so they understand the implications of their actions – and of their inaction.”

      The IEA has made an important step forward in helping policy makers understand the implications of their actions. No politician can now claim that a bunch of charging stations for electric cars constitutes a real climate action plan for the transportation sector.