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Avoid, Shift, Improve: The new mantra for reducing transport carbon emissions

5th December 2017 | John Manners-Bell

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The 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the UN Convention on Climate Change took place last month in Bonn, Germany, with senior executives from DP DHL, DB Schenker and Maersk representing the industry. In 2015, this annual conference hit the headlines when a legally binding agreement in Paris was negotiated (COP21), establishing specific targets and actions to reduce greenhouse gas gasses (GHG) as well as mitigating the effects of climate change, especially on developing countries.

COP21 involved government ministers from almost 200 countries and was regarded as the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. The latter 1997 agreement set emissions targets for a number of developed countries but was largely regarded as a failure when the US pulled out and others failed to comply.

COP21, in contrast, managed to achieve an agreement between all the countries involved. It established targets to limit the growth in global temperatures to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and 'endeavour' to limit them to just 1.5 degrees over.

There was also agreement to attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions to levels which can be absorbed by trees, soils and oceans by 2050-2100. Developed countries would provide financial support to poorer ones in order for them to adapt to climate change and ensure that they developed their economies in sustainable ways. The deal sets the level of support at $100 billion a year by 2020 with increases by 2025.

One of the criticisms made by climate change activists was that only elements of the deal are legally binding. There will be an assessment of progress in 2018 followed by five yearly reviews. With only voluntary caps on emissions, it remains to be seen how successful the agreement is in practice.

The approach to climate change involves what the parties describe as 'top-down' and 'bottom-up' initiatives. Governments agree on sectors where they believe action needs to be taken and then organizations are invited to suggest initiatives to address the problems.

In 2017, 21 new initiatives have been formed and fall under the following categories:

  • Urban transport
  • Freight and logistics
  • Fuel efficiency and electric mobility
  • Cycling and walking
  • Aviation
  • Transport technology
  • Road transport

The two most relevant initiatives to freight logistics are:

  1. Global Green Freight Action Plan: Calls on governments, private sector, civil society and others to align and enhance existing green freight programs, develop and support new programs, and to incorporate black carbon reductions. Twenty-four countries and 33 non-state organizations have signed up.
  2. Navigating A Changing Climate: Focused on waterborne transport infrastructure with an aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote a shift to low-carbon maritime and inland navigation infrastructure, as well as improve preparedness to changing sea levels. Its partners include mainly port infrastructure organizations.

The over-arching mantra of all these initiatives is one of 'Avoid, Shift, Improve':

  1. Avoid unnecessary movements or trips.
  2. Shift to more sustainable and shared modes.
  3. Improve the environmental performance of transport modes. This point includes technological improvements to reduce GHG emissions and air pollution.

However, there is recognition that more needs to be done to make the business case for investment in adapting transport infrastructure and services to a changing climate. The Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, an organization which publishes an update on progress towards the commitments (Marrakech was the host of COP22) says that Improve will not on its own be enough to ensure targets are met. More must be done to Avoid the need for carbon output (for instance, by better urban planning and managing demand) as well as to Shift demand (for instance, by promoting non-road based freight transport).

About the author: John Manners-Bell is Founder and CEO of Transport Intelligence Ltd, Bath, UK, which since 2002 has developed a market-leading position in the provision of market research to a range of blue chip customers and governmental organisations. He is former Chair of the Logistics and Supply Chain Global Agenda Council of the World Economic Forum, attending meetings in the UAE, China and South Africa as well as speaking and moderating at the annual Davos meeting. He is regularly quoted in the trade and national press (FT, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, Economist) and has spoken at conferences worldwide.

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