How Greener Cars & Smarter Transit Fit Into COP15

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“Given the role that transport plays in causing greenhouse gas emissions,” UN climate chief Yvo de Boer told participants in a UN framework convention in Tokyo earlier this year, “any serious action on climate change will zoom in on the transport sector.” Nearly a year later, we’re approaching what’s supposed to deliver the serious climate action: the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, kicking off next week.

As countries work to slash their emissions over the next decade (and beyond), low- and high-tech solutions for cleaning up cars (expected to triple in number by 2050), transit systems and freight transport will be a key piece of the puzzle. Consider the numbers: Globally, the emissions from transportation have increased faster than from any other sector in recent years. And according to a statement from the UN, CO2 emissions related to transport are on track to increase 57 percent worldwide by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, “with the transport sectors of developing countries -– particularly in Asia and Latin America -– potentially contributing about 80 percent of this increase if nothing is done.”

“All of the current trends in transport fly in the face of what science tells us is required,” de Boer said at the Tokyo convention. Reversing those trends and ratcheting down emissions from transportation will require a range of strategies (and a significant shift from the the Kyoto Protocol, which did not extend to emissions from international transport). The UN Environment Program has called for better urban planning, more efficient air traffic management and routing, and other strategies to help clean up existing transportation systems and keep cities in developing regions from getting “locked into an absolute automobile dependence.” And at a climate forum held last year in Leipzig, Germany, de Boer suggested that steps might include tighter CO2 standards for cars and improved data collection for transport-related emissions (an area where startups including Cleantech Open contestant Danfoss IXA may find opportunity).

Developed countries at this point are proposing to set emissions reduction targets in the range of 14-18 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, Reuters notes, while the Obama administration plans to target a reduction of 17 percent below 2005 emission levels by 2020.

These goals and time tables highlight the need for near-term improvements on existing technology (for example, the window glazing required under California’s “Cool Cars” initiative, diesel engines, and higher-efficiency fuel injection systems like the one under development at startup Transonic Combustion) while next-gen innovations are in the works.

We’ve noted that while Warren Buffett (who has invested in electric car developer BYD Auto) says he expects all cars to be electric by 2030, a more conservative forecast from Lux Research suggests a slower rate of adoption for vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions as long as battery prices keep EV costs high compared with conventional vehicles. So as de Boer put it at Leipzig, “New technologies will certainly be part of the answer. But we simply cannot afford to wait for ‘silver bullet’ solutions which may only be commercially available in the future.”

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