Transport tackles climate change: Will UNFCCC help?

Cornie Huizenga, Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT)

Transport is responsible for 1.24 million traffic fatalities per year, as well as high levels of urban air pollution and congestion in many cities. At the same time, transport is the second largest sector in terms of energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and it is clear that without a substantive contribution from the transport sector, it will not be possible to limit global warming to a maximum 2˚C temperature increase.

The following are three broad strategies – tested at scale in both developed and developing countries – that can improve accessibility of passenger and freight transport, while reducing GHG emissions, air pollution, road fatalities and congestion:

  • Avoid travel or reduce travel distance by motorised modes of transport;
  • Shift to more environmentally and socially sustainable modes for passenger and freight transport; and
  • Improve the energy efficiency of transport modes.

The transport sector responded to the call for bold action on climate change by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at his Climate Summit in September 2014 by announcing five major transport commitments on urban public transport, rail transport, urban electric vehicles, fuel economy, and green freight. Collectively these actions can reduce the carbon footprint of at least half of all passenger and freight trips made by 2025. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that these actions, if implemented at a global scale, can result in cumulative savings of $70 trillion by 2050, due to reduced investment needs for vehicles, fuel and transport infrastructure.

Within the sustainable transport community there is disappointment on the manner that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process is relating to the growing momentum on sustainable, low carbon transport. There is a widely felt belief that mechanisms under the UNFCCC are not particularly effective in spurring the transport sector into action. This does not mean that the Conference of the Parties (COP) should have specific discussions on transport, but it is important that mechanisms under the UNFCCC catalyse action on climate change mitigation (and adaptation) in transport.

Much of the mitigation action in the developing countries that has been initiated in recent years is not captured in the National Communications by these countries, as these typically lag behind in reporting with the latest available National Communications typically reporting on the status in 2007-2010. At the same time, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) focus on post-2020 actions. As a consequence, reporting to UNFCCC on the transport sector (as for other sectors) for developing countries has a gap of 10 years. It is the period from 2010-2020, with rapid increases in transport activity, that will lock-in GHG emissions from transport for the next 30-50 years.

With transport being responsible for 23 per cent of energy related GHG emissions, it is important that the technology mechanism under the UNFCCC includes a focus on sustainable, low carbon transport. Yet, it appears that the philosophy driving the choice of sectors in the technology mechanisms is still based on the idea that winners can be selected from among sectors, rather than ensuring a focus on all sectors that contribute in a sizeable manner to climate change, those that will have to change in order to realise the 2˚C scenario.

The UNFCCC process is also ineffective in providing guidance on how to arrange the funding required to implement sustainable, low carbon transport at the necessary scale. Climate finance is still focused on the implementation of specific projects rather than on the use of international climate finance to build capacity and policy, and leverage public and private finance.

The public sector needs to lead efforts on sustainable, low carbon transport, but the involvement of non-state actors is critical. The track record of the COP to involve non-state actors is not impressive and discussions in the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) are not hopeful.


The SLoCaT Partnership tracks COP 20 negotiations at: