Transportation is a key sector for the health of our environment but often its relevance is underestimated. Transportation has a significant impact on climate change. In the last 35 years the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the use of fossil fuels and other sources have grown rapidly and in 2008 they represented 56.6% of the world’s total emissions. Of this, transport is the fastest rising CO2 emissions source and it can become the major source of emissions in the short term. For example, in Latin America, 32% of C02 emissions come from transport – the largest percentage in the world, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Most of the emissions from transport are produced in cities.  In fact, light duty vehicles are at center of urban transport problems and rising emissions. Experts say that high CO2 urban emissions are a symptom of poor urban transport systems. It means that more people travel in private cars and produce more emissions. That is why we need to get a handle on cars, because the motor vehicle ownership is projected to grow dramatically in countries like China, India, Brazil or Mexico.

Transport is also impacted by the health of the natural environment. For example, cities are becoming hotter not only because of climate change but mainly because of the way we build them.  The use of more paved surfaces such as asphalt and concrete traps heat and releases it slowly during the night.  This, combined with less use of vegetation, which helps to cool the local climate, produces a hotter environment that is less attractive for transit users or pedestrians, who then prefer the comfort of an air-conditioned car.

Experts propose that we need to use an Avoid- Shift- Improve approach to reduce emissions from transport in cities:

Avoid or reduce the need to travel through improved access to daily needs. A reduction of the need for long distances to be traveled can be best achieved by the integration of land use and transport. 

Shift travel to the most efficient mode, which in most cases will be either non-motorized or public transport.

Improve existing forms of motorized transport through technological improvements, innovations to make engines and fuels less carbon intensive and by managing transport network operations for peak efficiency through such strategies as smart traffic and public transport system management.

Finally, transportation and the natural environment, or particularly, the urban environment, share very close ties that are being rediscovered in many cities. Calmer, friendlier and human scale transport systems create healthier and more active communities. These communities have increased human interaction, are more walkable and are typically less noisy and more attractive.  Car dominated spaces are a bit the opposite, either they are empty, lifeless and boring places or congested, noisy and unpleasant. This is why perhaps we say today that the transportation of the 21st century will maybe look more like that pre-auto era in which people walked, used bikes or rode on mass transit systems. Maybe they are right. What do you think?

Transportation + The Environment

An auto that runs on gasoline with 2.5 people in average ridership produces 6 times more CO2 emissions per passenger than a bus with 40 people that runs on diesel or gas. (Transport in Developing Countries, International Energy Agency, PEW Center for Global Climate Change).

While developed countries like the US, Japan or Spain will tend to stabilize, motorization in emerging economies will grow dramatically and will imitate motorization rates in the developed world.  In China in 1960 the country had less than 20 cars per 1,000 people and is expected to grow to 300 per 1,000 in 2020. (Vehicle Ownership and Income Growth, World Wide, 1960-2030, Dargay, et al, 2007).

Transport is the fastest rising CO2 emissions source, 24% global in 2006 and from that 50% is “urban” (Lee Schipper, Global Metropolitan Studies, UC Berkeley).

Stats + Figures


Translator: Salvador Herrera (Mexico City, Mexico), Deputy Director, Centre for Sustainable Transport - Mexico

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