Photo: Ian Taylor, Unsplash

Can we transform transport?

The promise – and limitations – of sustainable fuels

From 3–10 December, the GLF team is in Dubai reporting from COP28. Follow us here for live updates, live-streamed interviews and daily wrap-ups.

One of the key themes of day seven at COP28 is transport. Accounting for more than a fifth of global carbon emissions, it’s a major contributor to the climate crisis – and a sector ripe for decarbonization.

However, there is plenty of debate on how exactly we should decarbonize it, and a few options on the table.

Electric car
Electric cars are no silver bullet for the climate crisis. Ernest Ojeh, Unsplash

Taking the car out of carbon emissions

Road travel accounts for three-quarters of all transport emissions, mostly from passenger vehicles, such as cars and buses, with about a quarter from trucks carrying goods. It’s no surprise, then, that electric vehicles (EVs) have been at the forefront of the recent green-tech boom.

The International Council on Clean Transportation argues that EVs are the quickest way to decarbonize motorized transport, and the public has embraced these futuristic-feeling vehicles with open arms. From just 200,000 EVs on the road in 2012, there are more than 26 million today — and that number is only expected to grow.

However, it’s important to remember that EVs alone won’t solve the climate crisis, and they also come with their own set of problems. The batteries require minerals like lithium and cobalt, which have to be mined. Much of the electricity used to charge EVs is still produced with fossil fuels. And even with government subsidies, EVs remain prohibitively expensive for many people around the world.

Boeing 787
Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions. Tienko Dima, Unsplash

Are corn-fueled flights the future of aviation?

Aviation contributes about 11.6 percent of transport emissions, far less than road transport. Still, that’s more than the whole of Germany – and there are other ways that planes contribute to global warming as well, such as the release of nitrogen oxides and the creation of vapor trails.

Much of the innovation in this sector is centered around alternative fuels, which are normally some form of biofuel or synthetic electrofuel. Biofuels are derived from oils and fats, either from waste products, such as used cooking oil, or purpose-grown crops like corn.

Electrofuels are created by combining and transforming hydrogen and carbon dioxide through a chemical reaction powered by electricity. These are considered superior to biofuels but are expensive and rarely produced on a commercial scale.

However, both of these fuel alternatives are still burned like conventional fuel, producing emissions. They are only considered more “sustainable” because their production removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But that poses its own issues, such as when arable land is used to grow crops for fuel rather than to feed people.

Cargo ships in Hamburg, Germany
The vast majority of the world’s traded goods are transported by ship. Dominik Lückmann, Unsplash

Plain sailing for the shipping industry?

The shipping industry emits a similar amount to aviation, at about 10.6 percent of transport emissions – or about 2 to 3 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Just like aviation, one of the main solutions being presented is alternative fuel. The shipping industry is betting big on ammonia, one of the electrofuels mentioned earlier, which emits little to no carbon dioxide when burned.

But just like alternative aviation fuels, ammonia comes with a few caveats. Few ships of any size are currently set up to run on the fuel, and while it can theoretically be generated from renewables and waste products, it’s produced through highly carbon-intensive processes in reality.

Others in the shipping industry are looking back to their roots, with wind-assisted cargo ships making a reappearance in the last few years. Several major carriers are already operating or working on deploying sailing ships to reduce pollution, with some companies claiming that their concept ships could cut emissions by 90 percent.

Whether all of these make it from the drawing board to the water is yet to be seen, but it is certainly a more innovative approach than simply burning different fuels – even if they are looking backward to find it.

International shipping can seem disconnected from people’s experience of transport, but around 90 percent of all traded goods are carried by ship. In other words, any time you buy a book or drink a coffee, chances are, it got to you in a shipping container.

The simplest solutions

While many possible solutions to transport emissions have been presented here at COP28, one of the simplest seems to be: use less.

Rather than replacing classic cars with their electric counterparts, we have to cut back on driving and use public transport, cycle or walk when possible. To cut aviation emissions, we must fly less. And to cut the amount of carbon being pumped out by ships, we must stop buying things we don’t need.

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