The critical role of transport in global carbon emissions

Moving train in Moldova

Alternative fuels, electric vehicles and modal shifts can all help to reduce the transport-related carbon footprint

Transport-related activities make up nearly a quarter of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Each mode of transport generates some greenhouse gases, primarily in the shape of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Overview of the transport sector

So which areas of the transport sector play the most pivotal role in global CO2 emissions? To begin with, road transport is a leading contributor to carbon emissions. The carbon dioxide produced by passenger cars and heavy-duty vehicles operating on carbon-rich fuels is a dominant factor. However, road vehicles are not the only sources of transport-related CO2 emissions when travelling over land; railways and other rail-based modes of transport also generate greenhouse gases. Despite their domestic transport emissions, trains, metros and trams are nevertheless considered to be the most sustainable mass transit systems.

Additionally, the aviation sector plays a substantial role. In fact, the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions from aviation are as high as the total emissions of some entire countries. Besides aviation, the contribution of the international maritime and inland waterways transport sector is often overlooked when it comes to transport emissions. Due to the volumes involved, container ships transporting goods worldwide are a significant source of carbon dioxide.

Pipelines, cable cars and space travel can also be linked to transport-related emissions. The environmental impact of pipelines comes mostly from the emissions arising from the use of energy, although original data on the actual energy usage is scarce. Meanwhile, launching rockets out of the Earth’s atmosphere and into space requires a vast number of propellants. Just one rocket launch produces up to 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere, and those emissions can remain there for years. Compared with other modes of transport, cable cars perform as one of the best in terms of carbon emissions.

In conclusion, the combined emissions of transport by road, air and water make the most substantial contribution to the total CO2 emissions from the transport sector. And these transport CO2 emissions have increased over time, driving the global CO2 emissions upwards. That is why concerted action is required. Effective strategies to counter transport-related carbon emissions are needed, including increasing the prevalence of alternative-fuelvehicles and incentivizing electric vehicle adoption.

Truck on the road through a landscape with solar panels

Each mode of transport generates some greenhouse gases. Road transport is the leading contributor to carbon emissions.

Alternative fuels and electric vehicles

Fortunately, the transportation sector is already experiencing a shift. For instance, there is a growing push for the integration of alternative fuels. By switching to low-carbon fuels, the carbon intensity of various transportation activities can be drastically reduced.

Moreover, a rising number of new vehicles entering the market run on electricity. These produce fewer emissions than vehicles powered by traditional fuels. As a result, electric vehicles are a crucial instrument in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and guiding the world towards a future of clean transportation.

Unfortunately, the range of electric trucks is still currently inadequate for freight international transport, so they are not yet a viable solution. Nevertheless, we are likely to see promising alternatives for fossil fuel-powered trucks within a few years’ time.

All modalities contribute to global carbon emissions. Some more than others.

There is a growing push for the integration of alternative fuels. By switching to low-carbon fuels, the carbon intensity of various transportation activities can be drastically reduced.

Modal shift

A modal shift from carbon-intensive modes of transport– such as passenger cars and air travel – to less carbon-intense modalities like rail and public transportation is another way to reduce emissions. Research has shown that a modal shift to rail could reduce over-land transport-related greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union by about 20%. A reduction of approximately 30% could be achieved in combination with low-carbon electricity production.

Therefore, a well-developed rail network could substantially contribute to the EU’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector by 60% (compared with 1990 levels). However, investment is needed to enable such a modal shift, not least to manage the demand for capacity.

Understanding the carbon footprint

Software can be used to calculate various scenarios and to assess the impact of investment. By making use of tools like a CO2 calculator for transport, businesses can gain a detailed understanding of their own environmental impact. Understanding and monitoring one’s own transport-related carbon emissions can help a business to comprehend the broader impact of emissions generated by the transportation sector. As the world transitions towards a greener future, every step taken to reduce the carbon footprint – from the adoption of alternative fuels to a modal shift towards cleaner modes of transport such as rail – brings us all closer to a more sustainable future.

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