Climate impacts of transport

The world’s attention is now turned towards France and Paris. The media have been preoccupied by the terrorist atrocities. With luck, good news too will soon come out of Paris. I am referring to the UN climate change conference to be held at the end of November and early December.  Our planet needs common, binding targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Transport emissions of greenhouse gases can be reduced by increasing the efficiency of the entire energy system, improving the energy efficiency of vehicles and switching to renewable energy. Until now, boosting the energy efficiency of vehicles, particularly cars, has been the key factor in curbing transport emissions.

For this presentation, I browsed for various statistics on traffic. IEA figures show that traffic accounts for 28% of the end consumption of energy on a global scale. i.e. the transport sector is a major energy user and producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, due to Finland’s energy-intensive industrial sector, traffic accounts for a lower proportion of emissions here. According to the IEA, oil accounts for 93% of energy used in transport, with alternative energy sources (including biofuels, natural gas and electricity) still accounting for only 7%. In Europe, biofuels accounted for only 4.9% of road transport fuels in 2014.

Electric cars are being much discussed. According to the IEA, there were 665,000 electric vehicles in the world by the end of 2014. This is a high figure in itself, but accounts for only 0.08% of the world car fleet in absolute terms. The registration statistics of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, the ACEA, make for grim reading. Of new vehicle registrations in Europe, alternative vehicles accounted for only 4% in January–September 2015 and electric vehicles for only 0.8%. In Europe, only Norway (12.5%) and the Netherlands (3.9%) top 3% for the proportion of electric cars bought.

So where are the bright spots? In fact, they are closer to home than people think. Namely, in Finland. In 2014, biofuels in Finland accounted for 12.3% of all energy produced and the calculated share – taking account of so-called double counting – was as high as 23.5%. Under its distribution obligation, Finland aimed for a 20% share for biofuels by 2020 (calculated share), which means that this objective was achieved ahead of time and with flying colours. Finland’s number of electric cars is nothing to boast about.  But bright spots can be seen here as well. Finland is home to a new electric bus manufacturer, Linkker, a VTT spin-off. Helsinki Region Transport (HSL) has signalled its faith in progress by ordering the first 12 vehicles, the first of which is expected to hit the roads any day. HSL and VTT are engaged in close cooperation in other respects. Aims include all conventional buses ordered by HSL being run 100% on biofuels by 2020. In addition, HSL has highly ambitious plans for electric buses.

And this gives us our link to climate issues. Where public transport is available, passengers should be incentivised to leave their cars at home. This would improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions. It would also release urban space – currently used for parking – for other, more rational uses. And how can we get the share of public transport to rise? By providing easy-to-use passenger services and journey chains, and increasing the attractiveness of buses by promoting greener vehicles. All in line with HSL’s strategy and based on excellent cooperation between HSL and VTT!

Nils-Olof Nylund

Research Professor and Programme Manager of the TransSmart spearhead programme

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