Imperial research: Transport must shift gear to save climate

26 Oct 2021 | Network Updates | Update from Imperial College London
These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

As Imperial prepares for COP26 in Glasgow, researchers release a new study exploring how the world can achieve a net-zero emissions transport system.

Reaching net zero emissions to tackle climate change will require a complex set of changes and interventions across all sectors of the economy.

Climate experts and policymakers agree these changes will look different in different sectors and will bring multiple and varied benefits to people and businesses as society moves away from polluting fossil fuels towards using clean energy to power our homes, travel and production of goods.

new report by the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment and Energy Futures Lab explores what reaching net zero emissions in the transport sector might look like, by isolating the key changes that will need to take place, and where more research can play an essential role in decarbonising how we travel.

The report, titled "Research pathways for net-zero transport" is launched in the week leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which starts on 31 October in Glasgow, UK, and is co-hosted by the United Kingdom.

Stubborn sectors

Transport is ‘a significant and stubborn emitter’ of the greenhouse gases that heat the planet, as fossil fuels have been a convenient and cheap way to power vehicles and flight for over a century.

As our report outlines, a systems-wide approach must be used to unpick every facet of our society if we are to put the brakes on the climate crisis and limit the devastating harm to all living beings on our planet,Dr Drew PearceResearch associate and lead author

This report provides a better understanding of how human and societal behaviours lead to carbon emissions and explores how the whole system might respond to changes, supporting individuals and organisations to make beneficial and informed decisions as they transition to net zero emissions transport.

"Despite international agreements, global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. Some sectors of society have seen reductions, but any progress has been swamped by other sectors that have increased their emissions, the global transport sector being one of them," said Dr Drew Pearce, research associate in the Department of Physics at Imperial College London and lead author of the report.

"As our report outlines, a systems-wide approach must be used to unpick every facet of our society if we are to put the brakes on the climate crisis and limit the devastating harm to all living beings on our planet," he continued.

Among the many routes to decarbonising transport systems mentioned in the report, researchers point to old and new technology, from airships and human-powered vehicles such as bicycles and velomobiles - which are low- or zero-carbon transport modes - to Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies - which can help avoid the need to travel - and low-carbon fuels that can be used to lower the greenhouse gas emissions from current flights or miles driven.

Pathways to net zero

The report highlights the primary importance of cutting demand for energy in our transport systems as a key priority, by using transport more smartly and efficiently.

The urgent need to develop and deploy new technologies and approaches that can cut greenhouse gas emissions and phase out fossil fuels from our transport systems, is said to be a secondary priority.

Professor Jenny Nelson, Climate mitigation programme leader at the Grantham Institute and a contributor to the report, said in the report: "Obviously any problem is going to be easier if you reduce the size of it. And the problem of decarbonising transport is going to be easier if we reduce the amount of people and goods that move around."

Reducing demand for energy will also involve encouraging people to use zero-carbon modes of transport, such as walking and cycling. Barriers to sustainable transport systems must be removed in order to encourage these behaviour changes, ensuring people feel safe and comfortable using zero-carbon transport.

The report also explores:

  • Decarbonisation of the supply of energy that powers electric vehicles, focusing on two approaches: electrification and the production of alternative low-carbon fuels to replace fossil fuels.
  • Aviation, which the report highlights as a particularly problematic and stubborn transport sub-sector.
  • Future technologies, pointing to a number of exciting developments that could help to ‘alleviate the pressure’ in the long term, including re-examining some older technologies such as airships.

Imperial College London at COP26

Globally, all economic sectors urgently need decarbonising in order to tackle climate change, which is already causing harm to people and nature across the globe. The impacts of climate change are increasingly being felt all over the world, from growing numbers of wildfires and floods to climate induced famine and surges in eco-anxiety. Scientists are clear that rapid and sustained cuts to greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to limit the impacts of climate change.

All the countries of the world are gathering at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, UK in less than a week to discuss how they will ramp up their ambitions on tackling climate change with the urgency required and deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement. Under the Paris Agreement, all countries are asked to bring new plans for how they will reduce their emissions, called ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’, to reach the goals of the Agreement and keep global warming well below 2°C, and preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels (the average temperature before the industrial revolution).

Members of the Imperial College London delegation are preparing to attend the two-week conference in Glasgow, where they will share their expertise to help decision-makers deliver increased ambition on developing policies to address climate change. The delegation, which includes staff and students from across Imperial College London, will be representing the College, hosting events, and sharing Imperial’s research on climate change with the public, press and policymakers.

Members of the Imperial delegation share their hopes for COP26: 

Dr Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute, said: "I’m looking forward to being at some of the COP26 meetings, to disseminate my recent research on the urgency of tackling climate change and the risks that we should be seeking to avoid. There is much to be gained from limiting global temperature rise in the coming years, so I hope my research, along with the considerable evidence base that the scientific community has built in recent years, will help make the unequivocal case for enhanced action. This includes action on finalising the operational aspects of the Paris Agreement, as well as more ambitious national emissions pledges and international finance commitments."

Dr Emma Cavan, Research Fellow at the Department of Life Sciences (Silwood Park), said: "I am super excited to see the discussion of nature-based solutions on the COP26 agenda and a recognition of how important nature is in maintaining life on earth and even regulating the climatic. I feel privileged to attend COP26 as an observer, particularly whilst it is in the UK, and hope delegates can agree on improved targets and a strategy on how to actually meet them."Galina Jönsson, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, said: "Treating the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss as separate issues is in many cases inefficient and can, at worst, exacerbate the problem. UNFCCC are finally taking more notice of nature’s central role in tackling climate change, but will our world leaders step up to the challenge and safeguard Earth for future generations?"

Professor Martin Siegert, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute, said: "Nearly two years ago I was at a meeting at BEIS pondering, with many others, on what success might look like for the upcoming COP26. The broad consensus was that COP26 would be seen as successful if there was an agreed statement by all attending nations on the necessity for global net-zero emissions by around mid-Century. My opinion hasn't changed. While revised 'nationally determined contributions' presented at Glasgow are unlikely collectively to deliver a net-zero mid-Century outcome, we at least need formal global acknowledgement that this is where we must get to. More than 50 countries have done this so far, representing over 50% of global emissions, but the others now need to match their plans to this essential ambition.

The climate crisis is becoming ever more severe, and time is running out to hold global temperatures at the 1.5°C target. Without a meaningful agreement for mid-Century net-zero at Glasgow I fear it may be irrevocably lost. COP26 in Glasgow will improve the Paris Agreement climate deal - but will it deliver what we urgently need to avoid dangerous climate change?"

Milica Fomicov, Research Associate at Imperial College Business School’s Centre for Climate Finance & Investment, said: "Our job is to clearly spread the message that climate change is irreversible, it is a systemic risk, and we need to act now and collectively." Read more comments from Milica in this profile by Imperial College Business School.

See the full delegation and discover more about Imperial at COP26 on the Grantham Institute website

Why does COP26 matter?

What is climate change? How does it impact people and planet? What can we do to tackle the climate crisis?

The COP26 Universities Network, a group of over 80 UK universities and research centres working together to promote a zero carbon, resilient future, has created a short animation to answer these questions. The animation explains the science behind climate change, the impact the climate crisis is having on the natural world and societies, and what can be done about it.

This article was first published on October 25 by Imperial College London.

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