Implications of Covid-19 for the Decarbonisation of the Transport Sector

The Covid-19 pandemic impacts on the transport sector of the EU has been considerable. Read more about the short and long-term effects in this blog article by Neil Strachan (UCL, UK), Bob van der Zwaan (TNO, Netherlands), and Paul Deane (UCC, Ireland).

Why is decarbonising transport so important?

Decarbonisation of the transport sector is key to a greener Europe. The EU’s Green Deal targets a 90% reduction in transport emissions by 2050 to respond to the threat of climate change, with major additional benefits such as reducing our dependence on imported oil, or underlying health benefits from walking and cycling.

But this is a huge challenge. Transport is the only sector where emissions continue to rise, driven by strong consumer demand (e.g., EU car passenger journeys exceed 5,000 billion kilometres annually). From April 2020, transport emissions became greater than those from electricity generation; a watershed moment that shows the substantial progress in one policy area and significant challenges in another.

The decarbonisation ambition necessitates a major shift in fuels, technologies, and infrastructures. Changes are required that range from electricity for cars, electricity or biomass for planes, to hydrogen for ships and heavy freight vehicles.

But the scale and scope of the challenge require a systems-wide wholesale change of transportation as we know it.  So-called ‘Mobility as a Service’ can help us rethink what mobility can offer us (for housing, employment, leisure, and education), as well as making smarter use of integrated transport options.

What has been the short-term impact of Covid-19 on transport?

In many cities across Europe, lockdown measures have reduced traffic volumes by almost 90%, a trend also reflected in the skies as aviation traffic was significantly reduced. This had positive impacts on local air pollution, less noise, fewer traffic jams (especially as people worked more flexibly), and even urban biodiversity as birds and animals came back to our towns. But a key question is; can some or all of these benefits be maintained as European economies rebound after the crisis?

Early signs indicate that transport was back to 40% of normal levels in Berlin in mid-May, with other EU cities following this pattern.

But some things have changed, with surveys showing that people are planning an overall 20% reduction in trips while putting higher value on safety and public health.

What will be the long-term impact of Covid-19 on transport?

Evidence from previous disruptions to society (e.g., from major terrorist events) showed that 5 years later around 10% of flights are still not taken and 10% of urban road journeys have switched to cycling.

But the Covid-19 crisis is a much larger societal shock and is likely to lead to the biggest economic downturn in living memory. We must learn from those countries who most successfully recovered from the last major recession following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, by innovating ourselves out of the crisis. The transport sector is ideal for such innovation, as it establishes new industries, creates employment, and simultaneously can yield a series of environmental and health co-benefits.

Other opportunities abound for transport. Over all workers, one in five expects to work more from home, while two-thirds expect business trips to decline and be replaced by virtual meetings. New business models can prosper as our purchasing habits change (e.g. shopping moving from physical retail to e-commerce delivery), while we can realise the changing societal preferences to work, live, and eat more locally.

To hold onto gains and chart a new course for transport, post-Covid-19 government policy is key. This includes strategic infrastructures (including high-speed and comprehensive information communication), as well as urban planning (e.g., Paris is preparing 650km of new dedicated cycle lanes). It also requires sustained investment in innovation across the entire transport system (see this DEEDS policy brief for more details).