Transport can no longer hide from its obligations

by Jos Dings, executive director

WHAT I KNOW IN 2016 THAT I DIDN’T KNOW IN 2015: Last year was the one in which it became plain for everyone to see that transport had turned from being the grey sheep to the black sheep in Europe and the world’s efforts to improve the environment. 

For the global environment, 2015 was most definitely not a good year, but it was a year of hope and change. Global temperatures were more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels, but for the first time in a very long time, global CO2 emissions probably actually declined. 2015 was also the year in which the world struck the Paris climate deal; a transformative event that makes it impossible for anyone to claim that ‘we are the only ones to act, the rest of the world is doing nothing’ – the classic deniers’ and naysayers’ argument. Definitive numbers have yet to come out but I won’t earn much money by predicting that it is the first year in which more than 50% of worldwide additions to electricity generation capacity was wind or solar – despite the plunge in fossil fuel prices. A real breakthrough moment of historic proportions, and likely also an explanation of why the Paris deal was possible; countries rich and poor alike now see that renewable energy has matured and is very cost competitive in ever more regions – especially tropical ones. All forms of energy are relatively cheap at the time of writing. The difference is that the cost of coal, oil and gas will rebound at some point, while that of wind and solar will keep declining.

For green transport, 2015 was simply a terrible year. The Volkswagen scandal made it clear for all to see – instead of just insiders like ourselves – how most (though not all) of the industry looks at sustainability. Certainly not as a strategic investment in global leadership or in a social licence to operate. No, simply as a set of meddlesome rules imposed by ignorant politicians that are best avoided at minimum cost, or even cheated as in the Volkswagen case.

And if you thought the Paris agreement was comprehensive, look again at the two holes large enough to send two big elephants through: aviation and shipping managed to wriggle themselves out of the deal. This was because of industry pressure but also due to the insistence of the UN shipping and aviation agencies IMO and ICAO that they and only they (read: not UNFCCC) have a role in solving these sectors’ environmental challenges. A pyrrhic victory for sure – both sectors received record amounts of negative publicity and transformed from elephants to fossilised dinosaurs in two weeks. The agreement is simply silent on who is in charge and who should do what. It won’t make regional action a cakewalk, but if a 1.5-2°C target is to be met, something much more significant needs to happen than what ICAO and IMO have up their sleeves.

The silver lining? In 2016 we won’t have to argue that transport is a BIG problem that needs sorting; instead we must decide what exactly to do. Let me tell you in a year whether we used that opportunity well enough.