In a global world we’ve gotten used to the idea that people and goods can easily be transported across towns, countries, and even continents. Our means of transport make our lives easy but take a toll on the climate: in Europe, road transport alone accounts for one fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions. Luckily, there are ways to make road transport climate-smarter.
Can you picture yourself getting on a horse carriage to make your weekly visit to grandma in the neighbouring town? No, we thought as much. Our bet is that friends and relatives would get fewer visits if it wasn’t for modern transport methods like cars. Today, distance is not a problem: it makes no difference whether you order your shoes from abroad or the shopping center downtown — the shoes will appear on your doorstep in mere days.
Cars, buses, motorcycles, vans and trucks make moving people and goods easy. But they also account for a major share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To reach the 1.5°C target set in the Paris Agreement, we need to find ways to reduce emissions from road transport. But how can we do that without having to settle on fewer visits to grandma?
The main reason road transport causes emissions is our use of fossil fuels (like gasoline, diesel or compressed natural gas) to fuel our vehicles. By burning what are essentially fossilised plants, we release the carbon dioxide captured over millions of years back into the atmosphere where it prevents heat from reflecting back to space and heats the planet.
Out of all registered cars in the EU, approximately 65% run on either gasoline or diesel (Eurostat, 2021a). These cars have a combustion engine: some of the fuel is fed into the engine, where it's mixed with air and then ignited. The fuel mix reaches a high temperature and pressure, and starts pushing on a part of the engine called a piston. The piston starts moving, and this movement is then transferred to the car's wheels. The problem with the combustion engine process is that most of the energy content (typically between 60-80%) is lost, as it turns into heat rather than being converted into kinetic energy that moves the car (Motiva, 2020).
In Europe, road transport accounts for 21% of overall GHG emissions, and 60% of that comes from passenger cars (Eurostat, 2020), which we use a LOT. On average, a Finnish car emits 152 g CO2 eq/km (VTT, 2017). The typical Finn drives 11 800 km per year, which means that our car usage generates 1.8 tons of CO2 eq per person (FTIA, 2018).
That’s one fifth of our individual carbon footprint.
And yet, more than one fourth of all car rides are less than 3 km long (FTIA, 2018)!
Besides taking a car everywhere, we seem to love sitting in them alone. The average number of travellers in each car in European countries is 1.7 people per trip (Fiorello et al., 2016). In essence, this means we have a very inefficient transport system, where we could theoretically halve the number of cars on the roads — and reduce traffic jams significantly — by filling up our cars better. However, we’ve spent decades getting used to the idea that we can have a car standing ready for us exactly when we want to leave, independently of others. Increasing ride-sharing requires a change in mindset and won’t happen overnight.
Passenger cars are not the only culprits, though. Larger vehicles like vans, trucks and buses together stand for almost 9% of European GHG emissions (EC, n.d.). This is largely a consequence of the fact that three quarters of all goods transported within Europe is transported on roads (Eurostat, 2021b). Though transport is typically a small part of a products lifecycle emissions, the massive amount of goods we transport quickly adds up to significant emissions.
Research indicates that online shopping amplifies this problem: traffic increases as a consequence of goods being delivered to the customers’ doorsteps. Delivery vans and trucks also increase congestion, which indirectly lead to more road transport emissions as cars end up idling for longer periods. (Faghri et al., 2015, The Guardian, 2016.)
Out of the three sectors we produce energy for, the transport sector is the one that requires the most fundamental changes to make climate-smart. To achieve an emission-free transport sector, we need to replace fossil fuels and reduce the energy need within the sector.
The best alternative for this is by far increasing walking and biking. When the distance gets too long, public transport is a good alternative. Trains, metros, trams and buses are fairly climate-friendly alternatives compared to driving a car, since the emissions are shared by a large number of passengers and they often run on electricity. If all 5.5 million Finns would start using public transportation instead of using a car, we could save 4.4 million tons of CO2-eq — that’s more than 8% of Finland’s total emissions!
The European Commission (2020) has presented a plan that aims to cut emissions from the transport system in Europe by 90% by 2050. In practice, the plan is to electrify as much of the transport system as possible. Goals such as 30 million zero-emission cars (such as electric and hydrogen cars) in operation, 3 million public EV charging points installed, and high-speed rail traffic doubled across Europe by 2030, are set to keep the transition on track.
It’s not a coincidence that electrification of transport is considered the main solution to our transport problems. To reach our climate goals, we need to act fast, and out of all the options we have, increasing the share of electric vehicles is one of the fastest ways to achieve significant emission reductions. This is because fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel can be replaced with electricity, which is partly produced from renewable energy sources. As the share of renewable electricity increases, the climate impact of electric vehicles decreases.
Another thing that speaks for electrification is the fact that there is a limit to the amount of biofuels we can produce sustainably, and it won’t cover the world’s passenger cars as well as other traffic. The biofuels we can produce should primarily be used for airplanes, ships and trucks — vehicles that are difficult to make electric — rather than powering cars.
Hydrogen could theoretically be produced at large scale using water and renewable electricity, two sources that there is a vast supply of. As of now, however, three quarters of all hydrogen is produced using natural gas, a fossil fuel (IEA, 2019). Moreover, the use of hydrogen cars requires a good network of hydrogen fuel stations. Thus, it will likely take some time before hydrogen cars are widely in use.
As local authorities can help to reduce GHG emissions from road transport by making sure public transport is a viable alternative, and that the bike lanes are kept in good shape, who you vote for matters. Politicians can also adjust taxes to support low-emission fuels and vehicles, set requirements for the use of biofuels and boost the number of charging stations for EVs.
But in the end, it is us individuals that decide which transport methods to use and where to go.
There are some emissions you can avoid altogether by not making a certain trip at all or by taking your bike instead of your car. Others can be reduced by for example using public transport. And for those trips you can’t or don’t want to avoid, you can minimise the climate impact by not driving alone in the car
Check our other top tips on how to reduce emissions from road transport below.
When it comes to fuels, different types of vehicles cause different amounts of GHG emissions. Today, the most commonly used fuels in cars are gasoline and diesel — which also are the most polluting options. Cars driven on for example natural gas and electric vehicles cause much less emissions. Passenger cars stand for 10% of Finland's GHG emissions today but this number can be decreased by 35% — cost-effectively — if we increase the number of electric vehicles (SITRA, 2018).
Here are some fossil-free options to fuel an emission-free transport sector:
Biofuel is produced from biomass, and can therefore be considered renewable to some extent. Biomass is for example food crops that have a high content of sugar; agriculture and forest waste; municipal waste; or algaes. The problem with some biofuels is that they compete with food crops for land and water, while some are too costly for now. (Ho et al., 2014.)
The use of biofuels will play a large role in reducing emissions from heavy traffic, but these fuels are impossible to produce in such amounts that they would cover the demand of the world’s passenger cars. For this reason, electrification of the passenger traffic is essential.
Biogas can be produced from e.g. biowaste, waste water treatment plant sludge, or agricultural biomass. It can replace fossil fuel, diesel, or natural gas as a fuel for vehicles, and reduce emissions from driving by 49-84% (Uusitalo et al., 2014.).
Today, most of the biogas produced in Finland is used for heat and power, but during the last few years, there has been an increase of biogas use in the transport sector as well — where it has great potential. In 2015, 40% of all gas used to fuel vehicles was biogas, and in 2030, the amount of gas-powered vehicles in the country is estimated to be over 13,000. (Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy, 2017.) A rising trend is as well the use of agricultural biomass such as animal poop for biogas production.
Biogas is not to be confused with natural gas, which is non-renewable and can be extracted during the same process of pumping up oil from the ground.
The European Commission aims to increase the number of electric vehicles in road transport drastically by 2030 (EC, 2020). By using electric vehicles (EVs) emissions can be lowered, but that’s not the only benefit: EVs can help us use intermittent or variable renewable energy sources (like wind and solar power) more efficiently through smart charging. We can charge the batteries during periods of high supply and low demand — at nighttime, for example — and feed that energy back to the grid when the overall demand is high and the cars aren’t needed (this is called vehicle-to-grid, V2G). This means that even if our need for electricity grows, we might not have to install that many new wind turbines or solar panels: we can use the ones we have more efficiently.
However, the price of EVs is still higher compared to conventional vehicles, and there are some initial costs due to the charging system that has to be installed. In addition, using an EV requires some adjustments to daily life habits — e.g. parking has to be planned so there is a possibility to charge the vehicle if necessary. On the other hand, lower running and maintenance costs, as well as lower taxes, does compensate somewhat for the high investment. (Temmes et al., 2014.)
Hydrogen is a potentially completely carbon-free fuel that could be an alternative in a zero-emission transport sector ). It can be used in cars driven by fuel cells, where hydrogen and oxygen take part in electrode reactions to produce electricity. A big advantage of fuel cell vehicles is that they’re about twice as efficient as conventional vehicles (Zhang & Hu, 2014), and the hydrogen fuel can easily be stored for later use (Vartiainen, 2016). Even if hydrogen-fuelled cars hold much potential for the future, they haven’t had a breakthrough on the market yet. An increase in the amount of fuel cell vehicles would require a better hydrogen charging network.
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European Commission, n.d.
European Commission, 2020
Faghri, A. et al., 2015
Fiorello, D. et al, 2016
The Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency, 2018
The Guardian, 2016
Ho, D. et al, 2014
International Energy Agency, 2019
Qu, M. et al, 2017
Uusitalo, V. et al, 2014
Zhang, Z. & Hu, C., 2014