Mission Earth

The world’s largest climate meeting was held in Dubai at the end of last year with the goal of developing a new plan to address the mounting crisis of human driven climate change. So, what exactly was the outcome, and what does it mean for the transportation industry?

Many observers were calling the COP28 event – the United Nations Climate Conference – the most important meeting in 28 years of international climate negotiations. Others proclaimed it didn’t go far enough, falling short of delivering the decisive action that science says is required.

As the biggest gathering of its kind, the global event attracted 85,000 participants, including more than 150 heads of state and government, as well as representatives from industry, business, Indigenous groups, youth sectors and philanthropy.

It was, even more importantly, the first chance to conduct what was dubbed a ‘Global Stocktake’ of the world’s efforts to address climate change since the creation of the Paris Agreement – a legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted by 196 parties at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015.

In fact, the Global Stocktake was arguably the most scrutinised text at COP28 and influenced both the direction and agenda of the event, thanks in part by the concern that progress since the Paris Agreement was too slow across all areas of climate action, whether it was supporting vulnerable nations or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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The beginning of the end

Most reports from COP28, and subsequent summaries of the outcome, suggest there was a clear and unified desire to transition away from fossil fuels. But there was consistent concern that the steps put forward, as to how to address the transition, were too incremental, especially considering the urgency at that moment – the gathering taking place during what scientist had found to be the globe’s hottest year on record.

By all accounts, participants by the end of the conference weren’t so bold as to declare the complete end of fossil fuels, but agreed that significant progress had been made.

“Whilst we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai, this outcome is the beginning of the end,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell in his closing speech. “Now all governments and businesses need to turn these pledges into real-economy outcomes, without delay.”

The language may still be relatively watered-down in the summit’s final document, but the support was there, with more than 140 countries publicly stating that they were in support of a fossil-fuel phase out. There were even calls from the Pope stating that it was ‘essential that there be a breakthrough that is not a partial change of course’ and demanding the total elimination of fossil fuels.

Among the reported improvements in the final text was the addition of the projection of peak global emissions between 2020-2025. Also made explicit now are the details around emission reductions, consistent with the goals of limiting warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, as well as reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

The final text more strongly ‘called on’ nations to take a variety of actions to reduce emissions. It also stated the intention of ‘accelerating and substantially reducing non-CO2 emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030’.

Fossil fuels and transport

The global transport industry had an important role to play at COP28, having the distinction of the highest reliance on fossil fuels of any sector. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in 2021 itit accounted for approximately 77 per cent of global transport related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Shelia Watson, the Deputy Director of the FIA Foundation, a global charity specialising in sustainable transport, was in attendance and highlighted the importance of transport being part of the conversation and the solution.

“Transport is a vital and often overlooked part of the climate action agenda,” she said. “During COP28 we were pleased to join a range of partners from across all elements of transport in calling for urgent action to move away from fossil fuel reliance, for investment in active mobility and for a just transition. It is clear that we must change how we move now, and that change must happen in a rapid, effective, and inclusive way.”

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The goal

The 2015 Paris Agreement established a mandate that the world must limit global temperature rises to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, and preferably to no further than 1.5°C.

This requires what is called the Net Zero Emissions (NZE) by 2050 Scenario, meaning cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere by oceans and forests.

In order to reach NZE by the 2050 deadline, UNECE has calculated that CO2 emissions from the transport sector must fall by more than three per cent per year to 2030. At the moment, today’s combustion engine dominated transport sector continues to rely on oil products for nearly 91 per cent of its energy.

Sustainable, low carbon mobility is therefore a high policy priority for practically all governments and central to delivering on the Paris Agreement. This is not an easy task however, especially considering the sector’s heavy dependance on fossil fuels, surpassing every other industry. The onus is now on the transport industry to make the necessary changes and reach global targets.

“As the world faces a projected increase of 79 per cent in transport passenger demand and 100 per cent in freight demand by 2050, the road-based transport sector bears a unique and urgent responsibility in helping countries meet their climate change mitigation goals and decarbonise,” said UNECE Executive Secretary, Tatiana Molcean.

The UNECE believes that the decarbonisation of transport should go hand in hand with the integrated planning of transition in the energy sector. This means any investments in the grid need to support the electrification of transport and the integration of renewable electricity. The organisation believes that the combination of high transport accessibility requirements and drastic reductions in emissions will only be achieved through a mix of policies and measures. These, it says, need to include fiscal incentives, strong regulations, investment in infrastructure and a push toward fewer emitting modals.

While there are still question marks as to how ending fossil fuels will ultimately be achieved, there were some tangible results from the summit. Among the major COP28 transport outcomes were:

The creation of a transportation coalition that includes more than 60 members from various companies, governments and NGOs. The group has issued a call to action to “double the share of energy efficient and fossil-free forms of land transport by 2030.”

The release of figures from the International Council on Clean Transportation that highlighted the progress of manufacturers towards electric vehicle goals. The group found that if manufacturers meet their current goals, electric vehicle sales would be about 32 per cent by 2030.

Ten companies joining the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels, bringing the total to more than 35 freight buyers working towards zero-emission ocean transport.

Twelve more countries joining the Net Zero Government Initiative, increasing the total to 30 that have committed to put their national government operations on a path to reach net zero emissions by 2050. With transportation being a significant source of emissions, it is hoped that this commitment will steer government investments towards zero emission transportation options.

An official response from transportation to the COP28 Global Stocktake –used to monitor its implementation and evaluate the collective progress made in achieving agreed goals – which will hopefully lead to more specific and formalised transportation sector targets.

A number of new countries, including Australia and Norway, joining action groups committed to ending overseas public financing of fossil fuel projects.

Continued sector progress

For its part, the transportation industry knows what is on the horizon and there are a number of key companies, especially within the trailer building industry, working diligently to be ahead of the sustainability curve. They made their presence known at COP28 participating in round table events and demonstrating what they have done so far to tackle emissions.

For example, SSAB, which produces steel that is used by manufacturers, joined COP28 as part of the Swedish delegation. The company which is already a leader in the steel industry’s green transition asked that policymakers prioritise research and development and faster permission for green industrial projects.

“Our research and innovation and production of fossil-free steel can change an entire industry and its value chain,” said SSAB Chief Technology Officer, Martin Pei. “Now policymakers nationally and globally need to create the right conditions to support the steel industry’s green transition.”

Trane Technologies,  whose brand ThermoKing is a leader in global refrigerated transport, was represented at the conference, underscoring the need for the adoption of accelerated climate policy and transparent emissions reporting.

The company, which was a signatory of the COP28 open letter, called for an increase in public-private collaboration and action to reduce emissions across global value chains.

“Accelerating decarbonisation requires not only innovation, but also advocating for policies that remove barriers and support adoption at scale,” said Trane’s Vice President of Sustainability, Scott Tew. “Companies around the world, across all sectors, must be held accountable for meeting commitments and driving urgent action now as we collectively work toward a more sustainable future.”

Trane Technologies is advancing its 2030 sustainability commitments, including the Gigaton Challenge, a pledge to reduce customer greenhouse gas emissions by one billion metric tons as well as its goal to be net-zero by 2050.

The sustainable future

Experts still insist reaching net zero within the transport industry by 2050 is still within the realm of possibility, but time is of the essence. According to CDP Worldwide, a not-for-profit that helps companies assess their global environmental impact, the sector is not well-prepared for the change that is coming.

A 2021 CDP assessment found more than a third of companies had not set any targets to reduce emissions, and 41 per cent were members of trade associations that hold positions on legislation that could hinder progress towards a low-carbon economy.

Approaching quickly is the next COP climate meeting which will take place in November 2024 in Azerbaijan. Participants and organisers are no doubt hopeful that by then the planet will be that little bit closer to saving itself.

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