Rail can help deliver a low-carbon future
WE have recently seen a number of landmark United Nations (UN) agreements that set clear objectives for the coming years. Most notable among these are UN Resolution 70/1 presenting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the historic COP21 Paris agreement concerning climate change.
There is growing acknowledgement that sustainable transport is a key enabler of sustainable development and the SDGs. In 2016 the UN convened the first Global Conference on Sustainable Transport. The UIC contributed to this event, which was attended by heads of state, numerous ministers and over 200 leaders of business and civil society.
Transport is a critical issue for climate change, as it is responsible for almost one quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions whilst also being vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Following these agreements, the global sustainable development community shifted its focus to implementation. This provides an opportunity that the rail sector must not miss. As the backbone of sustainable transport, our challenge is to make the case for investment and development of rail as part of the solution to climate change and delivering the SDGs.
With the mandate to make recommendations on how to accelerate the delivery of sustainable transport, I was appointed by the UN secretary general Mr Ban Ki-moon to serve on the High Level Advisory Group for Sustainable Transport. The findings of this group represent an unprecedented consensus from the public and private sectors, different transport modes, national and city governments, and passenger and freight sectors. The 10 policy recommendations are presented in the report Mobilising Sustainable Transport for Development which was published in October 2016. UIC will now dedicate itself to support the implementation of these recommendations.
Energy and climate change are certain to remain major issues - and continue to present both opportunities and challenges. UIC works closely with the International Energy Agency (IEA) and has for a number of years jointly published the UIC-IEA Handbook on railway energy consumption and CO2 emissions. The 2016 edition illustrates that while rail is already one of the most lowest-emitting modes of transport it is also improving its performance.
Since 1990, railway energy consumption has improved by 37% per transport unit, and carbon emissions by 30% per transport unit. Modelling by the IEA has confirmed that this trajectory is on target to meet both the objectives of the Paris agreement on climate change and the voluntary targets announced in the UIC Low Carbon Rail Transport Challenge and presented at the 2014 UN Climate Summit. The UIC has a well-developed programme designed to improve energy management.
Far greater reductions in transport carbon emissions can be made by achieving a modal shift - by increasing rail’s market share at the expense of higher-carbon transport. Notably, this aligns well with the objectives of the European Union transport white paper.
The UN process on climate change is now offering tangible opportunities to influence transport policy and investment decisions. In support of the COP21 Paris agreement, each country has submitted a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) providing details on how far it will reduce carbon emissions and which sectors will be affected. Analysis of the NDCs show that in 77% of the submissions, transport is explicitly mentioned by national governments as an area for mitigation. However, specific actions to develop heavy rail appear in only around 19% of submissions. The UN climate process requires governments to increase ambition and publish revised NDCs in 2020.
A priority for the UIC is to use our UN accreditation to participate in UN COP negotiations and present clear advice encouraging the development of rail to reduce transport emissions.
Experience has shown that climate policy should not be considered in isolation. The high-level advisory group adopted a definition of sustainable transport as “the provision of services and infrastructure for the mobility of people and goods - advancing economic and social development to benefit today’s and future generations - in a manner that is safe, affordable, accessible, efficient, and resilient, while minimising carbon and other emissions and environmental impacts.”
A vision for rail, as the backbone of sustainable transport, must respond to all dimensions of sustainability.
One of our key messages must be that sustainable transport is no more expensive than the unsustainable business-as-usual. Transformation requires a redirection, rather than any substantial increase in infrastructure expenditure, and can be realised through an annual investment of around $US 2 trillion, similar to the current business-as-usual spending of $US 1.4 - 2.1 trillion, according to a 2016 World Resources Institute working paper.
When considering full transport costs, including fuel, operational expenses and vehicles, sustainable transport can deliver savings of $US 70 trillion by 2050 whilst reducing carbon emissions by 7 giga-tonnes (according to the IEA) and alleviating congestion. Notably, improvements in border administration, transport and communications infrastructure could increase global GDP by $US 2.6 trillion, or 4.7%, according to a 2013 World Economic Forum report.
The international community has provided a clear mandate presenting both opportunities and challenges. The time has come to deliver.