5 Elements of Sustainable Transport

5 Elements of Sustainable Transport

Transport is responsible for around a seventh of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Of these emissions almost two thirds are the result of passenger travel while the rest is due to freight.

So passenger travel is a big deal for climate.

In the chart above, which comes from our new eBook Emit This, we compare carbon intensity of different types of passenger transport on a per passenger kilometer basis.  Using it we can explain some elements important to the development of a sustainable transport system.

1) Fuel Economy

Our chart today compares the carbon intensity of different transport modes, per passenger kilometer.  The better fuel economy gets the lower emissions go.  If you just look at the cars you’ll see the large car (15 MPG) has emissions almost three times that of the hybrid car (45 MPG).

By improving fuel economy we can get the same mileage while generating fewer emissions.  Something that is achieved by making engines more efficient, vehicles lighter and bodies more aerodynamic.  But even then combustion engines remain relatively inefficient and produce emissions at the tailpipe, so improving them is really just a stop-gap en-route to sustainable transport.

2) Occupancy

The cheapest and simplest way to lower the carbon intensity of a passenger kilometer is to stick more people in the vehicle.  In each of the figures above car occupancy is assumed to be an average of 1.6 passengers (including the driver).  But most cars are designed for 5 people.

If you take a look at the bus examples the importance of occupancy becomes even more stark.  The local bus example has emissions seven times higher than the school bus.  While there routes may vary a little they are both diesel buses.  The main difference is that the school bus has very high occupancy.

With notable exception of flying public transport tends to have quite low carbon emissions, due largely to having relatively high occupancy.

3) Electrification

In the absence of breakthroughs in second generation biofuels electrification is the most important pathway to low carbon transport.

Electric cars using low carbon power have footprints less than half that of the best hybrid, even after you account for their larger manufacturing footprint.  Right down the bottom of our chart is the high-speed EuroStar rail which used low carbon French electricity. Though not on our chart the lowest carbon transport on earth is probably electrified public transport in a place like Norway where electricity generation is almost carbon free.

While there is a natural tendency to obsess about the electrification of cars, there are lots of interesting innovations occurring in the electrification  of rail, motorbikes, scooters and bikes.

4) Pedal power

They may be a bit low tech for some, but when it comes to carbon emissions bicycles are pretty cutting edge.  Even when you account for the foodprint of excess energy used when cycling, the humble bike is incredibly low carbon.

Bikes have obvious limitations around speed and distance, but for short trips in places with good infrastructure they are hard to beat in terms of carbon. They also have a great synergy with public transport systems like intercity rail.

5) Urbanization

Each of the first four elements we have described above refers to improving the carbon intensity of transport.  But emissions are a function of both how we travel and how far we travel.  One thing that tackles both of these issues is the trend towards urbanization.

People who live in cities have lower transport emissions.  Fuel economy may be lower in city traffic but that is more than made up for by the fact that city dwellers drive far less.  Electrification of public transport is more economic and practical in cities.  Occupancy on public transport systems is much higher.  And access to infrastructure for both cycling and walking is often better.

In 1950 less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cites, by 2010 that figure was over 50%, and by 2030 it is expected to surpass 60%. This natural trend to urbanization is a huge opportunity to for lowering both distance travelled per person and the carbon intensity of that travel.

Those are our five elements of sustainable transport: fuel economy, occupancy, electrification, pedal power and urbanization.

Check out our free new eBook Emit This for more ideas on getting more life out of less carbon.










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  • http://www.brettjarman.com/ Cessielou Deducin-Dosdos

    Hi Lindsay,

    I find your article very helpful. May I ask your permission if I can have it republish on sustainabletransport.info site. Thank you so much!

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  • Quiet Rush

    Interesting. We’ve just been in a local EV event in Australia that focussed on ebike construction by school kids as part of National Science Week in Australia, would have been useful to see PowerAssisted Cycling get a rating in your graph, noting there are likely measurement issues. See more at http://www.hunterevfestival.net/ Would also like permission to republish if that’s OK with you.

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  • texasaggie

    On another post that linked to this the author asked what was missing. One possible thing missing is a pair of sandals with the soles made from a worn out tire and the straps made from leather or an inner tube. Mine have lasted almost ten years of daily wear during the spring and summer and have gone many hundreds of miles in that time.

    • Lindsay Wilson

      Indeed, and all the best cities I’ve ever been to were ones that were great for walking

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  • Dmitry Ignatyev

    I absolutely love your blog. Importantly, you remember to look at the big picture and put things into perspective. Well done! I will be using some of your resources for educational materials/workshops, properly referenced of course!

    • Lindsay Wilson

      Thanks so much!! On transport I often focus right in on carbon, but it is good to remember particulates too. Diesel looks pretty good on carbon sometimes, but you don’t want it in a city

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  • jcstratton

    Would be interested to hear more about the “indirect fuel” emissions associated with heavy rail. Also, the emissions for flights is counter intuitive to me, shouldn’t longer flights be less carbon intensive, as a smaller percentage of the total fuel burned is during takeoff? Or does the weight of the extra fuel on board cancel out this effect?