‘Need to up our game’: Moves to halt global warming hinge on transport choices

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Transport emissions are on track to blow the world’s chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees but could be brought under control through aggressive action to accelerate the switch to electric vehicles, public transport and non-motorised travel.

That warning was released overnight by the International Transport Forum as Australia trails its peers in adopting electric vehicles (EVs), which made up 3.8 per cent of new car sales last year compared to 8 per cent in the US, 23 per cent in the UK and 25 per cent in Europe.

Traffic on Melbourne’s West Gate Freeway in December 2022. Credit: Scott McNaughton

The International Transport Forum, an intergovernmental think tank within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, predicted in its 2023 outlook report that current and committed decarbonisation measures will result in transport carbon emissions falling only 3 per cent by 2050 compared to 2019 levels.

“That is nowhere near where we need to be to keep global warming in check – we really need to up our game,” ITF secretary-general Young Tae Kim said during a press conference at the group’s annual summit in Leipzig, Germany.

Transport produces 23 per cent of global emissions and 19 per cent of Australia’s, with about half of that from cars and other private vehicles. The ITF projected that a growing global population would increase passenger transport demand by 78 per cent by mid-century and freight transport would double, wiping out gains made from decarbonisation efforts.

However, Kim said more aggressive government action could lower transport emissions by 80 per cent over the next 25 years, which would be in line with the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees.

Governments could achieve that by encouraging: the faster uptake of EVs and other low-emissions transport technology; greater use of public transport, walking and cycling; and, more freight movements by rail rather than road. Sustainable fuels, such as hydrogen, needed to be advanced to decarbonise the aviation and maritime industries.

The Albanese government released a federal EV strategy in April, aimed at encouraging greater adoption, but it attracted criticism for not setting uptake targets nor a date for ending the sale of conventional petrol vehicles.

Mark Harper, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for transport, said his government was working towards its pledge to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans outright by the end of 2035. The European Union has also committed to that target. Between 2030 and 2035, petrol vehicles can only be sold in the UK if they are plug-in hybrid electric.

“We’ve made very considerable progress now on decarbonising energy production, which means transport is actually the largest sector for producing carbon, and one where we now need to make significant progress,” Harper said.

ITF transport outlook project lead Orla McCarthy told The Age that countries should set targets that identified when they would achieve the transition to zero-emissions vehicles.

“We have this window of opportunity and that’s where the targets fit in … in terms of achieving it,” she said.

The ITF also said governments should encourage people to drive less by building denser cities where public transport, walking and cycling were possible.

Significant investment in infrastructure, including EV charging stations, would be needed now to bring down emissions. But the ITF predicted that spending could be 5 per cent cheaper than building more roads over the next 25 years to support current vehicle-heavy travel trends.

The reporter travelled to Leipzig as a guest of the OECD.

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