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Live from Durban: Rethinking Mobility at COP17

A panel of transportation experts at COP17 share a vision for the future mobility. They see tremendous opportunity to advance climate solutions by advancing sustainable transportation.

"Without tackling transportation, we cannot tackle climate change," sums Heather Allen of World Research Institute. Their vision is ambitious, but draws largely on existing technologies.

Transportation is a big and growing problem. It represents a significant percentage of our emissions. In the U.S., transportation accounts for about 40 percent of GHG emissions.

As our world population expands, so does the demand for vehicles. Across the developed world, the quality of transportation is deteriorating. Transportation infrastructure – highways and railways - is deteriorating and public transport systems are overtaxed. Especially in the current economic environment, investment and policy attention on these failing systems is not forthcoming. There is a marked decline in public modal share of transit use.

"What we need is a sustainable transport pathway," summed John Christensen, Head of the UNEP Risoe Centre on Climate, Energy and Sustainable Development. "We need to avoid transportation when and where we can; we need more video teleconferencing, remote offices and the like. We need to shift to some new, cleaner options like high-speed rail. And, we need to improve some of the options that exist, such as hybrid and electric cars."

Yosuke Takada of Japan's Institute for Transport Policy Studies seconded this view. "Technology alone is insufficient for achieving sustainable transportation, though it can get us about halfway there. Ultimately, we will have to change our lifestyle."

Much of the promise of sustainable transport lies in High Speed Rail (HSR). HSR has a low carbon profile – about 1/6 that of airplanes and 1/9 of automobile. Overall, rail has 6 percent share of the worldwide transportation market and 1 percent share of CO2 emissions contribution. It is a low-carbon option. The EU is already working on carbon neutral rail technology.

Furthermore, HSR is far more resilient to climate weather events. After the recent disasters in Japan, HSR was operable within days. Much of the other transportation systems were out of commission for weeks and months.

Ironically, Los Angeles, the "city of sprawl," was first built around a 1,100-mile railway. The mainline stretch from Riverside in the south up through central Los Angeles. It was once a prime example of a low-carbon city. But post World War II, the railroad was rundown and policymakers, enthusiastic about the automobile, tore it down. The result: six lane highways, urban sprawl, infamous congestion, and high emissions.

According to Mr. Takada, the sustainable pathway initially focuses on five regions: Europe, North/Latin America, India, China, and Southeast Asia. Collectively, these regions account for 80 percent of the emissions.

These thought leaders recognize that to achieve the vision, public and private leadership is necessary. They are encouraged by the current debate in the aviation industry, wherein levies might be applied to high carbon transport to help fund low-carbon options. John Christensen recognizes that there has to be a business case for rail to gain traction, especially in the U.S. And much of the business case relies on the volume of people using the system.

Another challenge for U.S. adoption is that funding and support for interstate systems is fragmented. Certain states, like California, appear close to approving HSR, while others, like Florida do not appear receptive in the near term.

What is clear is that developing sustainable transport pathways in the carbon intensive regions is a process. The policy process is slow and bureaucratic. And, even if a decision is made, it will take years to build the infrastructure.

The good news is that there is a plan. The plan uses existing technology and potential for tremendous impact. The bad news, it takes time. Time is, like other precious resources, running out.

High-speed rail photo via Shutterstock.

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