Want to clean up your dirty air? Look to transportation – and not just to cars – as the place to start

The world view is that what we as humans need to do to avoid a climate-related meltdown, if you will, and meet short-, medium- and long-range climate goals, is to forgo dependence on combustion of fossil fuels – hook, line and sinker. We’re talking about an across-the-board transition to clean energy here to power all automated processes within our society. The plan of attack is to first reduce reliance on the polluting fossil-fuel-combustion process and then scale up mitigating action of said combustion practices until all such practices become null and void.

All well and good. The question, though, is, how best to get to that which we want to achieve – the clean-power outcome, in other words.

We’ve been hard at work, working toward reaching that outcome – make no mistake. And, that’s good.

But, have we been approaching this logically? My own insight and intuition tell me no, we’re not.

How do I know?

To begin with, the thing that needs to be considered here is the temperature targets: In order to avoid climate’s worst effects, based on scientific consensus, the global mean surface temperature (GMST) since the beginning of industrial times can rise no more than 2 degrees Celsius (C), and, preferably, by no more than 1.5 degrees C, by the end of the 21st century. At this point in time, GMST has risen by 1.2 degrees C. It, in my opinion, is so much better to get ahead of this early on than to wait until much later to try to meet the challenge. The maxim “too little, too late,” comes immediately to mind and one should not want to put themselves in a situation where that outcome becomes an all-too-real one.

So, that brings us to the question of how to go about implementing a strategy that is both effective and sustainable to help us reach our sought-after short-, medium- and long-range objectives.

While needing to take all polluting sectors into consideration, the focus must be on those emissions-producing sectors responsible for releasing the greatest amounts of pollutants into the air – in this case those, first and foremost, being the transportation and energy sectors.

Where transportation is concerned, the Nov. 2011 International Union of Railways in its High Speed Rail and Sustainability report, UIC predicted emissions of carbon dioxide from transport would rise 1.7% per “year from 2004 to 2030.” (1)

In “An air quality pep-talk primer: Transportation – a rallying cry, really,” a Nov. 11, 2016 Air Quality Matters post, I stated: “It has been only recently as a matter of fact, that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from transportation has overtaken energy generation which, previously, was the largest pollutant-emissions contributing sector (41 percent by volume) … .”

Farther down in the same article, I offered, “With transportation on a global scale now the single largest source of CO2 emissions when it comes to output, it stands to reason that if we are to make the greatest impact in terms of air-quality improvement, transportation is the place to start.” My position on this has not changed one bit all these years later.

The big push now in America is electrifying transportation; cars, trucks, SUVs especially. The reality, though, is as of the late 2010’s, sales of new electric vehicles is right around 2.2%. This is out of all new vehicles sold. Granted there are mandates in place that provide for increased new EV sales down the road, 100% by 2035, but that is contingent on automakers offering only ZEV models, making sure the necessary charging infrastructure is in place to accommodate all of the vehicles requiring charging when needed, the materials for making batteries and the batteries themselves being available and, probably most importantly, a willingness on the part of the driving public to accept electrification with open arms. The major automobile manufacturers already appear to be moving in the electric-vehicle-production direction.

Another area to look at is balance. In the same High Speed Rail and Sustainability report the UIC provided the breakdown of emissions-releases. (2) The percentages for year 2005 are:

• Aviation (domestic) – 5%
• Aviation (int’l.) – 6%
• Road – 73%
• Rail – 2%
• Shipping (domestic) – 2%
• Shipping (int’l.) – 9%
• Other – 3%

These percentages suggest that road transportation is the most utilized, followed by international shipping, international aviation, domestic aviation, other and then tied for least-utilized modes are rail and domestic shipping.

Greater reliance on rail and aviation could definitely change the dynamic. If done intelligently, such could have a substantial impact in regards to emissions reductions coming from transportation. Rail could be exploited more, especially in the area of passenger transport, far more than what is the case at present and, if made electric, this could create substantial gains in terms of emissions reductions. More people using trains means fewer folks traveling by automobile.

Renewably generated electricity translates to fewer negative impacts created by the energy sector. A case where one sector’s improvement can shape another’s for the better, people ultimately being the beneficiaries of having cleaner air to breathe while able to have their mobility needs adequately met.

That’s what it’s all about.

1. Jehanno, A; Palmer, D. and James, C. (2011): High Speed Rail and Sustainability, “4 High Speed Rail is a sustainable mode of transport,” URL: http://www-pp.uic.org/download.php/publication/531E.pdf (p. 13)

2. Ibid. “4.1 HSR has a lower impact on climate and environment than all other compatible transport modes (4.1.1 Energy consumption and GHG emissions (High Speed Rail is part of the solution to fight climate change)): Figure 7 Global transport CO2 emissions by mode share in 2005,” URL: http://www-pp.uic.org/download.php/publication/531E.pdf (p. 15)

– Alan Kandel

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