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Climate change is becoming a real threat to humanity and it is time for all of us to take action in order to mitigate and adapt to this threat. The path for transformation to a low carbon world is complex, but it is possible. A clean energy transition is one of the critical steps to mitigate climate change. In my previous article, we tackled GHG emissions from the building sector and how electrification of transportation would have synergies with buildings emissions. In this article we will look at the Transportation sector.

The impact of Transportation on climate change is significant, around one third[1] of the global GHG emissions are attributed to the transport sector (2020). Transportation is vital to economic activities, it affects raw materials costs, manufacturing and logistics, food, and can go as far as the hospitality sector.

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The transport sector is expected to witness a transition towards a low carbon future. The  transition would involve not only passenger vehicles but marine, railway, and aviation as well. There are many promising technologies that are on the horizon that would guide this transition. Passenger vehicle electrification may be the most popular technology that stole the spotlight in recent years, with a sharp rise in the number of electrical vehicle stocks (small sized vehicles) in North America, Europe, and China, which is also projected to continue into the future. In addition, the number of electric trucks are projected to increase in the next 5~10 years[2] which is expected to help mitigate on-road truck emissions for North America. Due to their superior well to wheel efficiency, electric vehicles may be able to satisfy the projected growth in passenger vehicle demand without significant increase in GHG emissions; this is provided that grid electrification is largely driven by low carbon sources. On the other hand, for certain parts of the world, using biofuels, for passenger vehicles, may ramp up, as well as use of compressed natural gas technologies for both passenger and long haul trucking. It is unlikely, but possible, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or hydrogen combustion technology may see some resurgence for passenger vehicle transport. It is important to highlight that the regulatory framework around transport emissions will be vital to low carbon transport technology adoption. In a perfect world, there would be a coordinated effort between regulators to phase out fossil fuel based transport technology as well as setting out dates where certain technologies would be prohibited.

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Battery Electric Vehicles Adoption by Region

Nonetheless, cars are only a part of the transportation emissions story, to fully address these emissions it is important to mitigate emissions from international and coastal shipping activities which constituted around 11%[3] of total transport emissions (2010). This mitigation will prove complex. For marine propulsion technologies, there are less non-fossil fuel based low carbon technologies that are proven aside from SMRs used on icebreakers.[4]

“The most uncertain aspect of transforming the transportation sector to lower carbon is the adoption strategy”

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Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika Image: AtomFlot

Another critical part to transport emissions is the aviation sector, which generates another 11% of the total transport emissions (2010). Electric[5] and hybrid aviation may prove a to be a good candidate for the use of high density energy carriers like hydrogen[6] or ammonia. Furthermore, innovations in battery technology may ultimately lead to use of battery electric aviation for short haul and domestic aviation, while synthetic fuels will be used for long haul applications.

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Airbus concept ZEROe features hydrogen combustion for propulsion and fuel cells for electrical loads

Railway emissions will be harder to mitigate for countries that lack an existing electrical railway system, and this type of emission mitigation will require significant infrastructure investments in both public and private railway sectors as well as longer durations to implement.

Perhaps the most uncertain aspect of transforming the transportation sector to lower carbon is the adoption strategy of the low carbon transport technology, whether it is electrical grid ramping up low carbon generation capacity, transmission and energy storage to account for increased demand for road transport electrification, or the consumers, companies, and government’s adoption of low carbon transport at scale.

The transport sector is embarking into an exciting era where there are opportunities for transformative change. Fortunately, the speed at which this sector moves may be suitable for reaching good results in transforming transport to a low carbon future. This is evident in the adoption curves of certain technologies, as well as investments in future technologies that may prove successful. Long haul trucking, railway, and shipping will be challenging sectors to transform to low carbon, given their effects on commodity and consumer costs, and their linkage to the industrial sector (which we will discuss next). However, we remain optimistic on the outlook for these sectors to make good progress in the near future.

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[1] “Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2020 – Analysis – IEA.” 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.iea.org/articles/global-energy-review-co2-emissions-in-2020. Accessed 31 May. 2021.

[2] “Ford expects 40% of global sales to be electric vehicles by 2030 ….” 26 May. 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/26/investing/ford-electric-vehicle-investment/index.html.

[3] “8 Transport – IPCC.” https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter8.pdf. Accessed 10 May. 2021.

[4] “Russia building most powerful icebreaker fleet, aims for year … – RT.” 14 Apr. 2021, https://www.rt.com/business/520990-russia-powerful-icebreaker-fleet-putin/. Accessed 11 May. 2021.

[5] “Lilium Air Mobility – Lilium.” https://lilium.com/. Accessed 10 May. 2021.

[6] “Electric flight – Zero emission – Airbus.” https://www.airbus.com/innovation/zero-emission/electric-flight.html. Accessed 10 May. 2021.

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Mike Hassaballa
Mike earned a master’s degree in applied science in 2013, then he launched his career in the data centre industry. In 2015, he shifted gears and took on a Lead Engineer role in a company developing emission reductions technology. He then moved in 2018 into energy consulting. Mike focuses on most critical issues and opportunities in business: strategy, operations, technology, transformation, advanced analytics, and sustainability. Mike writes fascinating stories meant to be read by anyone. He excels in simplifying complex subjects and bringing a fresh new perspective to pressing issues.

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