U.N. report shows ‘heavier lift’ for cars, trucks, planes

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The transportation sector needs to decarbonize fast, according to the latest report by the top scientific body studying climate change. But it won’t be easy.

To avoid a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, cars and other forms of transportation need to dramatically shift toward electrification, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its report released Sunday.

The report overflows with a wealth of scenarios and recommendations. Its findings for the power sector are especially attention-grabbing — it calls for total or near-total phaseout of coal-fired power plants by 2050 (Greenwire, Oct. 8).

But environmentalists say it’s important not to overlook its findings for the transportation sector, a top contributor to planet-warming emissions.

“It’s pretty widely acknowledged now that transportation is a very significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, and its share has grown over the last few decades,” said Sean Hecht, a law professor at UCLA. “So clearly, decarbonizing the transportation sector is going to be a crucial part of any strategy.”

Cleaning up the transportation sector, however, will be no small feat.

“Transport accounted for 28 percent of global final-energy demand and 23 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2014,” the second chapter of the report states. “Emissions increased by 2.5 percent annually between 2010 and 2015, and over the past half century the sector has witnessed faster emissions growth than any other … suggesting major challenges for deep decarbonisation.”

In the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases — emissions from the power sector have been falling in recent years. Market forces, particularly the rise of cheap natural gas, have spurred the retirement of dozens of coal-fired power plants.

In contrast, emissions from the U.S. transportation sector have continued to climb. Light-duty vehicles such as passenger cars account for the largest chunk of the sector’s emissions. Indeed, many Americans continue to view driving as an essential part of everyday life without recognizing its environmental drawbacks (Climatewire, Sept. 5).

“The transportation sector is a heavier lift,” said Phil Duffy, president of the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center. “I mean, stationary sources are just easier.”

Chief among the report’s recommendations for the transportation sector are boosting the prevalence of low-carbon fuels and encouraging the electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets.

Still, electric vehicles have a long way to go before achieving widespread adoption. There are now more than 2 million EVs on the world’s roads, but they make up only 0.2 percent of total light-duty vehicles.

Environmentalists also caution that vehicle electrification must be accompanied by a global shift toward renewable energy. They say driving an EV is much less friendly to the environment if it uses electricity that comes from a coal-fired power plant.

“It’s not just electrifying our transportation system; it’s the combination of electrifying our transportation system and then having our electricity come from low-carbon sources,” said Hecht of UCLA. “So there is some synergy between reducing emissions in the transportation sector and reducing emissions in the power sector.”

The report briefly touches on aviation and shipping, recommending that commercial airline and shipping companies pursue “highly ambitious efficiency improvements and use of low-carbon fuels.” In the near term, it specifically calls for the use of advanced biofuels.

“Some continue to downplay the extent of aviation’s climate impact — some 5 percent of global warming when accounting for both CO2 and climate effects at altitude,” the International Council for Sustainable Aviation said in a statement. “Likewise some claim that the international portion of aviation’s emissions was ‘excluded’ from the Paris Agreement and should be addressed by the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). But the report makes clear that cutting emissions from this fast growing sector is essential if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

The report ultimately finds that current Paris pledges are not enough to limit warming to 1.5 C and that governments must double down on their climate commitments.

Yet greens say the United States took a major step backward this summer, when the Trump administration announced plans to weaken Obama-era greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for vehicles.

“The IPCC reinforces the urgency of accelerating the adoption of clean vehicles — including through improved combustion engines and an on-going shift to electric vehicles,” Luke Tonachel, director of the clean vehicles and fuel project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email. “It’s no time to slow down, yet the Trump administration is trying to do just that by rolling back standards.

“Other countries are forging ahead — with stronger standards recently proposed in the E.U. — and U.S. automakers are in danger of losing the race for the vehicles of the future.”