1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Growing demand for travel poses green transport challenge

May 24, 2023

Shifting to sustainable travel is essential to reduce carbon emissions from transport. Encouraging public transport, biking, reducing flying and replacing fossil fuel cars with electric ones can help significantly.

A person rides a bike in an empty bike lane next to a row of stopped cars
Human-powered transport options like walking and cycling will be needed to help some cities to reduce their carbon emissionsImage: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

Despite efforts to make train travel more attractive, electrify airplanes and take the fossil fuels out of cars and transport trucks clogging city streets around the world, carbon dioxide emissions from the global transport sector aren't falling fast enough.

Even with current pledges and action to reduce emissions from transport, CO2 levels linked to transportation are expected to keeping rising over the next decade, said a new report released by the International Transport Forum (ITF) on Wednesday.

Without more ambitious goals and rapid deployment of new technologies, carbon emissions are only projected to be 3% lower than 2019 levels by 2050. 

"The challenge is deploying technologies and implementing policies to sufficiently and quickly shift transport to more sustainable modes, to offset what we see as rapidly increasing demand for travel," said Matteo Craglia, a transport analyst at the ITF. "This is particularly the case in emerging economies, which are expected to increase travel demand very significantly."

The ITF, a global transport think tank within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has projected that, as the world population grows and society becomes increasingly globalized, global passenger demand will rise 79% by 2050. Freight demand is expected to roughly double.

Passenger demand — measured by the transport of one person over a kilometer — is predicted to more than triple in sub-Saharan Africa and more than double in Southeast Asia.

These estimates take into account the lifestyle shift forced by COVID that has seen more teleworking and online shopping in certain parts of society. Although the ITF report stressed that shift should not be overlooked by policymakers as a chance to further the "green transition."

Transport responsible for 20% of annual CO2 emissions

Craglia told DW that the "system-wide change" across all sectors, from electricity generation to transport to manufacturing, is more challenging than anything the global economy has ever faced in the past, especially when considering regional differences.

"Not all countries are similarly placed to be able to decarbonize or have the governance to be able to push forward needed reforms and policies to help accelerate decarbonization," he said, highlighting the gap between high and low-income countries.

Electric vehicle sales have increased in the developed world and China in recent yearsImage: Torsten Sukrow/SULUPRESS.DE/picture alliance

To have any hope of meeting the Paris climate goals of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said total transport emissions will need to drop to 80% below 2015 levels by 2050. The transport sector — road, rail, shipping and aviation — is responsible for more than 20% of annual CO2 emissions, with passenger cars making up two-fifths of that.

Though the scale of change seems daunting, Craglia is confident that private vehicles are well on the way to making the switch and becoming cost competitive, citing the increase in electric vehicles sales in the developed world and China. The ITF report said that based on existing policy plans, zero-emission vehicles "should make up one-quarter of the global passenger car fleet by 2035."

"The business cases are making sense, and now it's just the case of deploying the infrastructure," he said. That includes the necessary green energy electricity grids and charging stations, especially high-power chargers for heavy-duty trucks, which emit a significant share of freight emissions around the world.

Shipping: An industry's slow boat to change


This browser does not support the video element.

Aviation and shipping, however — which contribute more than a fifth of annual transport emissions — remain a major undertaking.

"The technologies to decarbonize them are still at an early stage of deployment, still often in [research and development]," said Craglia.

Craglia mentioned as examples research into low-carbon fuels for shipping and low-carbon, high-energy density fuels for aviation, like biofuels made from agricultural waste, algae and used cooking oil. Here, he emphasized the importance of other market-based measures to support development in these areas, such as carbon pricing.

Shifting demand to sustainable travel

Technology won't be the only way to cut carbon emissions from transport, said Craglia. Changing peoples' habits and encouraging a shift to more sustainable options will also be key, he said. That will be important in established transport networks and, especially, in fast-growing urban areas which have yet to build significant transport infrastructure in Africa and Asia. Sustainable options include public transport, ride-sharing, walking, cycling and scooters.

"Helping emerging economies to move to more sustainable transport systems with a higher reliance on shared transport modes and active mobility is particularly important," he said. "[These are] some of the low hanging fruits that really deserve policymakers' attention."

Why do we build cities around cars?


This browser does not support the video element.

Policymakers will have a chance to exchange their ideas from May 24 to May 26 at the ITF summit, an annual forum for decision-makers and experts to discuss transport and climate policy at the global level.

This year's event, in Leipzig, eastern Germany, will host around 50 transport ministers, deputies and other officials from around the world. Organizers also aim to make transport one of the key issues at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai later this year, as nations review and renew their climate promises.

Craglia said the last few years have seen "a stepping up of policy ambition," pointing out US efforts to boost zero-emission transport with last year's Inflation Reduction Act and EU plans to phase out internal combustion engines by 2035. And he expects that movement to continue in other regions, both with passenger and freight travel.

"The challenge is that yet more ambition is necessary, in all countries across the world," he said. "And that has to accelerate very quickly if we are to meet the targets of the Paris climate accord."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues
Skip next section Explore more