State of Mobility
Overview and Trends in Mobility
The transportation industry accounts for over 20% of global CO2 emissions and trends show that demand will multiply by 2050. Car ownership will increase to 2 billion vehicles, trucking will double, and air transport could quadruple, leading to a 200% increase in emissions from transportation alone. The transportation industry also faces major challenges in terms of urban congestion, time wasted in traffic, and noise pollution. In addition to the environmental toll and logistical nightmare, side-effects of air pollution caused by CO2 emissions increases asthma, contributes to heart disease, and kills 3.5 million people each year. To accommodate the increasing demand for personal mobility and urbanization while taking care of the planet, it is imperative to make the transportation industry sustainable.
Investing in the sustainability of mobility is a strategic decision that will make cities more livable, reduce environmental impact, and address market trends. Young people, for example, are putting pressure on industries to introduce innovative sustainable solutions as they opt for low-carbon impact alternatives such as electric bikes and scooters, public transport, and car shares. These behavioral shifts from conscious consumers, in addition to technological advances that make innovations more efficient, are strong motivations for companies to adapt their offerings. To properly transition to a decarbonized transportation system, we need further development of renewable fuels, parallel infrastructure projects that enable new technologies, and incentivized behavioral change.
Fuel Alternatives: Electric, biofuels, and hydrogen
When thinking about sustainable mobility, the first thing that logically comes to mind is fuel alternatives, specifically electrification – modifying machines to run on electricity. Although there is an enormous opportunity for electrification, we must consider electric’s vulnerabilities and consider diverse sources of energy and fuel. In addition to electricity, biofuels and hydrogen could serve essential roles in making transportation carbon-neutral.
Electrification using batteries
To date, battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) have had the most market success. Electric motors are reliable and well known, making them the go-to option when considering sustainable vehicles. Electric cars account for 2.6% of global car sales, 1% of total cars, and have had a 40% year-on-year increase in sales. This increase in popularity is made possible due to conscious consumers, enabling infrastructure, and viable technologies. However, there are still major obstacles to streamlining electric vehicles, including:
- Barriers to long-distance travel
- Difficulty to power heavy vehicles
- A sufficient supply of electricity from renewable sources
- Investment in crucial charging infrastructure
- Necessary advancements in battery technology
- And the fact that conventional engines cannot run on electricity
Electric vehicles are certainly a major player in the movement towards sustainable mobility, but they are only one part of a holistic approach to decarbonizing transportation. Advancements in hydrogen fuel cells, based on renewable electricity, show enormous promise for taking electrification to the next level.
Hydrogen fueled transportation is an increasingly viable technology for decarbonizing mobility that will become more accessible as prices decline and fuel stations are built. As of June 2018, there were over 6,500 Hydrogen fueled cars sold to consumers.
Traditionally, hydrogen fuel was made using fossil fuels. Instead of using fossil fuels, green hydrogen is made through electrolysis (powered by renewable energy) to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The only byproduct of turning hydrogen into fuel is water. Hydrogen can be stored more efficiently than electricity, making it possible to convert excess solar power during peak hours into easily stored fuel cells. For example, in urban areas where energy is in high demand, hydrogen can be used to prevent rolling blackouts such as in California.
Hydrogen can also be used in industrial processes where current electricity technology is unable to provide sufficient power. The biggest drawback to hydrogen fuel is that it takes an enormous amount of energy to split the water molecules. To truly embrace this amazing technology, a huge investment must be made into generating enough renewable energy to sustain broad adoption and to finding more efficient methods of generating hydrogen power.
Biodiesel is a fuel alternative that has great potential due to its compatibility with diesel engines, but presents serious challenges for land use and food security. Biofuels are traditionally made using oil from food stock, such as corn and soy, to make plant-based fuel. Though burning the fuel produces similar carbon emissions to conventional diesel, growing plant matter captures equivalent amounts of carbon. Plant products that could, however, be used to feed people.
The use of marine algae for making biofuels removes the dependence on food crops, such as corn. Algae can easily be grown in sewage waste and additionally, ocean warming has caused algae populations to soar. By using algae to make biofuels, we can mitigate some effects of climate change on the ocean and leverage sewage systems for energy production. When using biofuels, care must be taken to understand where the inputs came from to ensure that it’s not destroying ecosystems, creating food insecurity, or competing with agricultural land use.
Biofuels provide a good alternative to small scale transitions because they are compatible with existing diesel engines. Although biofuels are certainly not the future of sustainable mobility, they provide an option for reducing our dependence on petroleum in the short run, while we transition to an electrified infrastructure.
Transitioning to Sustainable Mobility: Challenges and Opportunities
The high price tag associated with sustainable transportation, lack of infrastructure, urban planning, behavioral patterns, and the amount of existing fossil-fuel-powered vehicles are some of the biggest challenges facing the transition to sustainable mobility.
Fossil fuels are highly subsidized. Governments spend about $5 trillion per year to keep the price artificially low. This discourages investments in sustainable alternatives and makes it difficult for renewable technologies to compete in the market. Removing fossil fuel subsidies and promoting renewable energies would be the catalyst needed to incentivize crucial research and investments in large scale infrastructure projects.
Transitioning to a transportation system that runs on renewable electricity or hydrogen fuel will only be possible if countries make the necessary infrastructure investments to support new technologies. Building charging stations, transforming gas stations, and innovating new technologies, such as roads that allow vehicles to charge while they drive, will be essential for supporting sustainable transportation. Accommodating new infrastructure through strategic urban planning will be crucial for efficient land use and influencing positive behavioral changes.
To make these new, sustainable technologies viable for mainstream use, they must be convenient. Urban planning will play a key role in transitioning to a sustainable transportation system by making vehicle charging easy, increasing route efficiency, and encouraging people to use low-energy modes of transport such as walking and cycling. Transitioning to sustainable mobility allows us to rethink how we move and has the potential to make movement accessible and practical for everyone.
Looking toward the future, it’s important to take advantage of existing technologies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in the short run, while continuing to invest in promising alternatives such as hydrogen. Biofuels, electrification, and shifting cultural preferences represent steps towards small scale sustainability. However, in the long term, we must look towards cutting edge research and large scale infrastructure projects to make complex transportation systems sustainable at scale. Well-coordinated advancements in infrastructure, breakthroughs in technology, strategic urban planning, and a well-planned transition will deliver a future of sustainable mobility.