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Insights 13 Sep 2018

SustainAbility at the Global Climate Action Summit: Steering the Course to a Clean Mobility Future

By Bron York

© Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash.

SustainAbility is at The Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and will be sharing blog updates about some of the events throughout the week.

You can read the first blog of this series here.

Steering the Course to a Clean Mobility Future: Tech Innovation Alone Won’t Get Us There

Event: Setting the Scene for Climate Action in Transportation and Mobility, September 12th

The transportation sector is one of the highest producers of greenhouse gas emissions as well as a major contributor to sub-standard air quality in cities, with associated health impacts. Meeting Paris Agreement targets means scaling low-carbon emissions technologies and zero emissions transportation at a rapid rate, as well finding trillions of dollars of investment over the next decade. The benefits to both the environment and human health will be significant, but so are the challenges.

The affiliate GCAS event at the Consulate General of the Netherlands brought together some of the leading thinkers on transportation around the world. Three key themes emerged over the course of a variety of panels and keynotes: transportation infrastructure can be really expensive, but someone needs to pay for it; technology and innovation alone won’t get us where we want to go, and progress will be too slow to mitigate climate change without some impressive public-private collaboration.

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Many nations and cities (with a few exceptions such as Japan) are now operating with public transportation systems that were largely constructed between the 1890s and 1970s.

Someone Needs to Pay for New Transportation Infrastructure

There is a good reason many governments have failed to invest in smart transportation infrastructure over the last forty years. It is generally really expensive. Whether it’s a new high speed train line, an inner city light rail system, or investing in EV charging infrastructure, governments, until very recently, have been avoiding large investments. Many nations and cities (with a few exceptions such as Japan) are now operating with public transportation systems that were largely constructed between the 1890s and 1970s. According to Dr Daniel Sperling, founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, only around one percent of US passenger travel is now made by public transit. But now we have an urgent challenge – rapidly decarbonizing transportation to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Governments around the world are stepping up – from the US, to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. But government funding alone won’t be enough. The private sector is going to need to step up to help finance the transition, both through direct investments, as well as more innovative routes such as green bonds.

Technology Alone Won’t Get Us Where We Need to Go

Several presenters discussed the limitations of technology alone in delivering the smart, integrated, clean transportation future that we need in order to achieve our climate goals. Dr Sperling stated that the current business as usual trajectory will result in privately owned autonomous vehicles that travel 50%-100% more miles than non-autonomous vehicles due drivers making hedonistic decisions around personal convenience, with empty “zombie cars” adding to congestion and energy inefficiency.

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Ride sharing, cycling and public transportation use will be key to minimizing both energy waste and traffic congestion.

Maarten Sierhuis, Director at Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley, led the audience through the current challenges and limitations of developing fully automated vehicles, which he described as, “eyes free” rather than just “hands free”. Autonomous vehicles are programmed not to break road rules. So what happens when fully automated vehicles need to cross double lines due to construction, or a vehicle blocking the street? They just sit there, and block traffic, creating more congestion. The solution is to have “tele-operators” that can remotely direct the car when it encounters situations it is ill-equipped to deal with. But is this solution scalable? Only time will tell. But it is clear that smart policy that encourages autonomous ride sharing, cycling and public transportation use will be key to minimizing both energy waste and traffic congestion.

Collaboration is Fundamental

One thing that all speakers and attendees agreed upon is that collaboration and lesson sharing, between governments, cities, companies and civil society organizations is essential. This means sharing the challenges and failures, as well as the success stories. We need rapid innovation around the world on multiple fronts: financing, safety, software, infrastructure. The only way we will meet the Paris Agreement targets, is through deep and transparent collaboration.

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