With nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from the transport sector, experts say we need to change the way we get from A to B. The path to low-carbon transport, however, is not a straight shot.
Starting Wednesday (27.05.2015), transport ministers from around the world are attending the International Transport Forum Summit in Leipzig, Germany. One of the topics up for discussion will be what can be done to reduce the climate impact of the transport sector.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement early Wednesday urging the world's transport ministers to accelerate efforts to combat climate change and "find new green solutions."
There are more than a billion cars on the road globally - and that figure keeps rising. Developing countries - where car ownership is often seen as a symbol of wealth, and an aspiration toward Western lifestyle - are among the biggest markets for growth. For example, vehicle ownership in India rose from 50 million to 130 million over a decade, from 2003 to 2013.
Meanwhile in industrialized countries, decades of relying on private vehicles in daily life mean profound changes are needed in infrastructure and public attitudes to reduce the carbon footprint of getting from A to B.
Unless action is taken to change the way we travel and transport goods, carbon dioxide emissions from the transport are projected to rise 70 percent between 2010 and 2050.
But studies produced in the lead-up to COP21, or the conference set for Paris this fall to negotiate a new climate treaty, say there is potential to reduce annual CO2 emissions from the transport sector by 40 percent by 2050. These measures could also save governments, business and individuals $70 trillion through reduced investment in vehicles, fuel and transport infrastructure.
The Paris Process on Mobility and Climate (PPMC) was launched on Wednesday at the transport forum in Leipzig, aiming to raise the profile of sustainable mobility in the discussions head of COP21.
"We see that there is a momentum building which in the past was not there," Cornie Huizenga, the secretary general of the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, said on the sidelines of the transport forum in Leipzig.
"Suddenly people are realizing it's necessary to take action on transport and that we have increasing examples of low carbon transport, so it becomes clear that it's possible to do it."
Electric cars that utilize a growing supply of renewable power could be one part of the solution.
"One of the major problems is that we have been sticking to one technology," Florian Hacker, an expert is sustainable mobility at the Öko Institute in Berlin told DW. "In the past there were no alternatives. E-mobility gives us the possibility to use low-carbon energy in our cars."
The German government had aimed to have 1 million electric cars on the road by 2020 - but by the end of last year, that figure was just 24,000. Experts say high prices and the relatively short distances that e-cars can travel between lengthy recharging sessions mean customers aren't going to turn away from the combustion engine any time soon.
"Today, there is no reason why people should buy electric cars over conventional vehicles," Hacker told DW. "Most people don't want to pay a premium price for a car that will only travel 150 kilometers before it needs recharging."
The cost of e-mobility is anticipated to go down as demand for electric vehicles rises. But in most countries, there are few incentives to boost demand.
Driving down costs
China is an exception. In a bid to reduce dependency on oil imports and tackle air pollution in the country's megacities, the Chinese government has poured money into building e-charging stations, and introduced subsidies to help people buy electric cars.
"If China is successful in promoting electric vehicles then we will see changes in the market," Ferdinand Dudenhöffer of the University of Duisberg-Essen's Center Automotive Research told DW. "If not, it will be very tough to make changes in this sector. The world depends on China."
E-mobility isn't the only high-tech route to greener transport. Electric power can also be converted into hydrogen through electrolysis, and then used in fuel cells to power transport - or converted to high-energy synthetic methane.
"Power-to-gas," as it is called, has the advantage of fueling vehicles over longer distances, and doesn't require the long recharging times that electric vehicles do. But it has other drawbacks.
"Synthetic fuels are very expensive and not very energy efficient," Hacker says. "Where they might be important will be in the aviation, where we don't have any other carbon-neutral solutions."
As far as the family car goes, costs for using power-to-gas there are high, and the market small. The Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car will go on sale later this year with a price tag of $57,500 (53,000 euros). The company is producing only 700 of these vehicles in its first year.
Reshaping our cities
Benoit Lefevre, director of Energy and Climate at the World Resources Institute's Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, says the key to reducing emissions from passenger vehicles - which account for around two thirds of emissions from the transport sector - isn't the silver bullet of a single technological solution.
Cleaner, more efficient vehicles have a role to play, he thinks. But these must go hand-in-hand with measures to reshape our cities and change the way we use transport. As Hacker points out, electric vehicles make much more sense if you use them to reach rail links rather than to travel long distances.
Compact city planning can reduce the demand for transport, while car-sharing, better public transport facilities and bike lanes can promote a shift away from private cars.
The 21st Conference of Parties in Paris is a key opportunity to engender these changes.
"We want to levy and exercise pressure on our governments," said Alain Flausch from the International Public Transport Association, speaking in Leipzig. "It's the governments of the states that are going to make those committments and do something to prevent climate change."
Leveraging climate finance
The UN Climate Summit in New York last year saw a range of initiatives launched, with industry and public-sector players committing to targets on reducing emissions from the rail and aviation sectors by 2050, as well as boosting the market share of electric cars sold in cities to 30 percent by 2030.
Lefevre said part of making these pledges a reality will mean using climate finance funds to leverage investment in low-carbon transportation infrastructure. In this way, richer nations can help developing countries to shape their cities for greener futures.
"In the developing world, urban populations are growing very fast. That's why it is so urgent to influence how these cities develop," Lefevre pointed out.
"Acting now will dictate what kind of cities we will have in the future - and there is huge potential for greenhouse gas savings."
Speakers promoting the PPMC in Leipzig alluded to several stunts they were planning around the COP21 summit to highlight the broad public support of action on climate change. One involved trains from all over Europe and parts of Asia converging on Paris the day the conference begins, another involved convincing delegates to arrive at the conference venue by bicycle.