Climaction Metroplus

Transport and the Climate

Understanding the impact of “how we move” on our climate involves answering several questions: Why do we move? How do we move? Where do we go? How do we consume? Why care?

Let’s start with: Why do we move? We travel to get things done: youngsters go to school, to college. People travel to their place of work or to meet other people – potential customers, suppliers or peers – in other cities or countries. We travel for fun – to theatres, to restaurants, holidays or pilgrimages. We travel to leave an old life behind or to discover new paths. As much as anything, the fact that travel has become easier is a defining feature of our age today. And that is precisely why scientists believe that addressing transport emissions is going to be tough.

How do we move? We can walk, cycle, take a motorbike, an auto, a car, a bus, a truck, a boat or a plane to where we need to go or a combination thereof. Each of these has an impact on us, the economy and the climate. Walking or cycling is good for our health and for the climate. Taking a flight is good for the travel industry, convenient (for the most part) yet not good for the climate.

The next question is an important one. Where, or how far do we move? Closely related to “Why do we move” – the answers to this question have implications on how we move and the design of our cities.

How do we consume? An increasingly efficient global economy means that manufacturing is steadily moving to the lowest cost destination in the world with increasing distance between the point of production and consumption. This has perhaps been the driving factor behind the rise of China as the world’s factory. But as we move to a service-consuming society, perhaps this freight movement will become a people-movement as people travel to experience what the world has to offer.

Perhaps the most important questions is: Why should we care? We should care because transport creates about a quarter of our global emissions from energy (slightly more for developed countries and slightly less for a country like India). The transport sector (encompassing our vehicles, our trains, planes and ships) emits a little more than 10% of overall greenhouse gases that warm the planet. And the sector has been growing fast. According to the IPCC, emissions from the transport sector have doubled since 1970 and are the fastest growing energy end-use sector. And unlike many other energy using sectors, the transportation sector is expected to grow as the increasingly wealthy Indians and Chinese want to experience more of the world first-hand.

As things stand, this tremendous growth of the transport sector is not compatible with a world that is a relatively pleasant to live in. That is, a planet whose warming can be kept within 2⁰C of the pre-industrial age average temperature thereby avoiding what many leading scientists call “catastrophic climate change”.

There are other issues to consider as we look at revamping our transport infrastructure to address the climate. One is pollution – caused by vehicle emissions that impact human health directly by causing problems like cancer and asthma. As our recent headlines proclaim, this is an increasingly important issue and one of the additional benefits of addressing the transportation sector. The second issue to consider is the increasing urbanization of the world and the ramifications of that on transport. In 2009, the world achieved a unique milestone: we became more urban than rural. And that trend is going to accelerate. Which brings us to the familiar traffic snarls and its concomitant unpleasant, unproductive time, unless we change the way we get to work and move around our cities.

So what can we do? Let’s start by acknowledging that the majority of Indians have an extraordinarily low transport climate footprint. For the poor, travel is expensive, so many do not do it, at least not in motorised, polluting ways.

For the rest, there is plenty to do. I shall focus on the following in the next set of articles: elements of smart city design that combines carbon-light transport options with locating places of work closer to homes, how to increase the efficiency of our travel, the behavioural modification necessary in thinking of transport, and new technologies that impact transportation: including electric cars and 3D printing. It’s going to be an exciting time.

(Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The next article in this series will appear on July 10.

Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to

(Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming.)

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 5:20:24 PM |

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