The uncomfortable truth about carbon

8th July 20201 comment

I am not normally outspoken in a professional context, but we must recognise the clear failing by many people to fully address what it means to reduce carbon emissions to close to zero, either ignoring sources of emissions, or delivering minimalist responses.

This leaves those who have looked dispassionately at the science and reached disturbing conclusions without adequate voice. It was notable that Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists were often older, and had barely protested before, but XR let them articulate strong, well-founded, concerns they may have held for decades, albeit by acting through protest, or well-meaning but often futile efforts to engage public and politicians.

Despite XR’s ‘wake-up call’, and despite the transport sector having the highest sectoral emissions (at least in the UK), the sector remained largely ill-prepared to meet Covid-19’s unexpected (if unwelcome) opportunity for radical change.

Given this lack, the intent in this blog series is to set out practical, pragmatic ways forward for the transport sector to play its full part in the transition that will have to come. But first, I should offer some justification for saying that the response to carbon reduction has been inadequate.

To fully account for transport emissions we should include all relevant international travel and embedded carbon – i.e. the carbon entailed in manufacturing, maintenance and disposal of vehicles, not just vehicle operations or fuels (in this respect, EVs may be worse than ICE (petrol or diesel) vehicles). The carbon emitted in electricity generation for EVs is often also ignored. In its strategy to reach zero-carbon, DfT (UK Department for Transport) specifically excludes international shipping and aviation, and does not measure anything except direct tailpipe emissions for road vehicles (thus EVs score perfectly).

It’s not sufficient to just slow the rate of increase of, or even stabilise, annual carbon emissions. Very sharp reductions in the carbon levels already in the atmosphere are needed now: we cannot assume that unproven or still-to-be-invented technologies can do the job in future.

In addition, the warming effect of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide (CO2e) collectively add a further 80 or so ppm to global CO2 emissions (i.e. an additional 55% above pre-industrial levels, with the total now exceeding 500 ppm). These are too often conveniently neglected, but have the same warming impact. Previous research suggests the short-term blanketing from marine pollution, due to high-sulphur fuels would, if suddenly stopped, cause substantial temporary warming.

Nor is a carbon-neutral future based on off-setting realistic: every airline seems to be leaping onto the same ‘plant some trees’ bandwagon to let them continue their profligate ways.

Much lower resource usage may also be imperative, including achieving a true circular economy. Again, EVs may have higher resource use, due to the weight of the batteries and the rare materials currently required for them.

Despite these counter-arguments, EVs are much cleaner and with lower overall carbon than ICE vehicles, so will be a necessary part of the solution. But they are far from the magic bullet so often promoted, where everything else continues unchanged.

Even assuming all vehicles (road, rail, air and ferry) become fully electric, it’s just not plausible to think we can achieve a zero-carbon future if we continue moving current numbers (and sizes) of vehicles around at today’s distances and speeds.

A quite different approach is needed.

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Image Mathias Schreier: A satellite image of the earth, in which emissions from shipping lanes can be seen.

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