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Transportation has a significant impact on our climate, around one-third [1] of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributed to transportation (2020). To make matters worse, transportation is absolutely vital to economic activities, it affects raw materials costs, manufacturing and logistics, food, and can go as far as the hospitality sector from cruise lines to tour operators.

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Global GHG Emissions

So what will it take to make transport emissions go to zero?

All passenger vehicles, marine, railway, and aviation activities will need to transform to zero emission propulsion technology. Electrification is the most popular technology, this is evident by the sharp rise in the number of electrical vehicles (EVs) around the world, this staggering growth in EVs is projected to continue into the future.[2] The next few years will bring, not only more small electric cars to the roads, but also electric trucks such as the recently debuted Ford F150 and General motors electric Hummer, as well as other expected models from exclusively electric automakers like the Tesla Cybertruck and the Rivian truck.

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Battery Electric Vehicles Adoption by Region
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Electric Trucks will be on roads in the next few years, Images: Ford F150 Lightning, Tesla Cypertruck, GME Hummer EV, Rivian R1T

On the other hand, using biofuels for passenger vehicles may ramp up in certain parts of the world, as well as the use of compressed natural gas technologies for both passenger and long haul trucking. Bioethanol and compressed renewable natural gas for passenger cars are already being used in some parts of the world, some companies such as Hyliion are planning to scale such implementation to become mainstream, it will be a battle between such solutions and purely electric long haul transport solutions like the Tesla semi.

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Electric Heavy Trucking, Right: Tesla Semi, Left: Mercedes Benz 2016 Concept

It is highly unlikely, however, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or hydrogen combustion technology may see much progress for passenger vehicle transport. Regulators will likely have to drive the shift of heavy transport to low carbon technology. In a perfect world, regulators would set a date where fossil fuel based trucking would be prohibited.

Not only cars are going low carbon, shipping activities (which produced around 11%[3] total transport emissions in 2010) can also be low carbon. For marine propulsion technologies, Small Nuclear Reactors which are used on icebreakers can extend to traditional shipping.[4] Other electric marine propulsion technology implementations are promising to expand to mainstream adoption, such as purely electric cruise liners like China’s Changjiang San Xia 1 electric cruise ship[5] , as well as ferries such as the E-Ferry Ellen[6].

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Image: Left: China’s Changjiang San Xia 1, right E-Ferry Ellen
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Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika Image: AtomFlot

The more exciting sector that is going low carbon is aviation, which generates another 11% of the total transport emissions (2010). There are a few front page projects that are promising small or personal electric aviation to go mainstream in urban environments such as Lilium, city Airbus, and even GM is contemplating a single person electric drone transport[7]. However, what is even more important are bigger aviation solutions like transcontinental and cargo.

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Image: Left: City Airbus, Right: Liluim

Electric[8] and hybrid aviation may prove a to be a good candidate for the use of high density energy carriers like hydrogen[9] or ammonia, where these synthetic fuels will be used for long haul applications. However, these are less ideal solutions, the innovations in battery technology may ultimately lead to use of battery electric aviation for short haul and domestic aviation, these may start with planes similar to airbus E-Fan X or Heat Aerospace ES1.

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Image: Airbus E-fan X (Left), Heart Aerospace ES1–19 (Right)

Railway emissions will be harder to mitigate for countries that lack the financial ability to deploy significant infrastructure investments in both public and private railway sectors. Electrifying railways requires constructing new electric railway networks within a decade or two or electrifying existing railway systems. However, utilizing the existing railways and using synthetic fuels, instead of fossil fuel, may be a less ideal solution that may lead to a dead end. In 2017 the government of Ontario spent $7 million to study using hydrogen powered trains on traditional rail (Hydrail). Using hydrogen for railway was investigated thoroughly, and after 4 years they elected not to include this in future rail expansions[10].

The good news is that there may be other alternatives to hydrogen for rail and for rail in general. The hyperloop concept may provide a lower cost lower emission alternative to traditional railways. It is being debuted through Virgin hyperloop[11] and other test projects like the boring company test track[12], hyperloop transportation company [13], and Transpod[14].

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Image: Virgin Hyperloop Dubai Concept

Low carbon transport will have significant opportunities for transformative change that will touch many aspects of society. In the near future, you may be able to travel in a small autonomous flying drone taxi from a congested city center to the airport. You may be able to take an electric airplane or travel in an electric hyperloop between two cities; and you may be able to take an electric ferry or a cruise ship. You will likely use an EV for work or getting around, it is an exciting future and the world will get there.

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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] “All-electric ship to help boost green transportation — Chinadaily.com.cn.” 19 Aug. 2021, https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202108/19/WS611d9e4ca310efa1bd669ac9.html. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

[6] “World’s largest electric ferry completes maiden voyage — Plugboats.” 17 Aug. 2019, https://plugboats.com/worlds-largest-electric-ferry-completes-maiden-voyage/. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

[7] “Cadillac wants to fly people in electric drones — Mashable.” 12 Jan. 2021, https://mashable.com/article/general-motors-cadillac-flying-drone-ces. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

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

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

[10] “After four years and $7 million, Metrolinx quietly drops proposal for ….” 1 Mar. 2021, https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2021/03/01/after-four-years-and-7-million-metrolinx-quietly-drops-proposal-for-hydrogen-powered-go-trains.html. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

[11] “Virgin Hyperloop.” 8 Nov. 2020, https://virginhyperloop.com/. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

[12] ““Loop today, Hyperloop tomorrow”. — The Boring Company.” https://www.boringcompany.com/hyperloop. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

[13] “HyperloopTT | Global Prototypes — Hyperloop Transportation ….” https://www.hyperlooptt.com/projects/. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

[14] “Alberta government gives green light to Calgary-Edmonton ….” 25 Aug. 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/alberta/article-alberta-government-gives-green-light-to-hyperloop-project/. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.

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