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The forces shaping sustainable transport

A climate crisis, urban population growth and technological disruption: three of the global forces that are shaping a sustainable transport revolution. 

We are living in a period of unprecedented change. The upheaval caused by COVID-19 is just one example of the many challenges the world is facing, from rising social inequality to the threat of climate change. The political landscape is equally volatile, with populism and nationalism still significant disruptive forces in many countries. Meanwhile, global initiatives such as the European Commission’s Green Deal are accelerating the transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy.


Among these global forces, three in particular are reshaping the transport industry.

GLOBAL forces


The escalating climate crisis is a great threat to our planet’s ecosystem and society. The transport sector is one of the world’s largest energy consuming sectors, contributing 23 percent of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and 18 percent of all man-made emissions in the global economy.


To achieve the goal of the Paris Agreement and avoid catastrophic increases in global temperatures, radical action is required from both government and business to decarbonise the transport sector. At the same time, the world needs to ensure this transition is managed in a way that benefits all of society and leaves no-one behind, in line with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.


As public awareness grows, and legislation and policy around carbon emissions evolves, demand is growing from providers and users of transport services for cleaner, fossil-free forms of transport.


The world is experiencing the largest wave of urban growth in history, with an additional 2.5 billion people expected to be living in cities by 2050.

This growth in population is far outstripping the growth in public transport. As cities grow bigger and more crowded, so does the strain on urban transport infrastructure, increasing the risk of air pollution and other major health and environmental impacts such as traffic noise and increased risk of road accidents. There is also the risk that access to transport services will become more limited, disproportionately affecting people from vulnerable groups.


The challenges of urbanisation call for resilient transport infrastructure and solutions that keep people and goods moving, and ensure the cities of the future are healthy, safe, inclusive and liveable.


We are living through the fourth industrial revolution – an era of radical and disruptive technological change, in which digital trends such as the Internet of Things, robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence are transforming the way we live and work.


Digitalisation is altering business models within the transport sector, as products, production processes and supply chains become more interconnected. Emerging technologies drive innovation and create new opportunities and risks such as challenges to personal integrity and ethical dilemmas along the value chain.

Sustainable transport

These global forces are creating an urgent need for sustainable transport – transport that is clean, safe, efficient, inclusive and resilient. They are also shaping the tools and technologies that the transport industry is using to respond to this demand. Four technologies have emerged that, together, are accelerating the shift towards a sustainable transport system – autonomous, connected, electrified and the use of renewable fuels.


The rapid evolution of artificial intelligence and other technologies has paved the way for autonomous transport.


Automation has great potential for transforming mobility. Self-driving trucks will profoundly change heavy goods transport in the future, transforming logistical flows and enabling goods to travel for longer distances without stopping, significantly increasing productivity for transport companies. Safety is also an important factor: with autonomous vehicles, operators can avoid using human drivers in potentially dangerous environments such as mines and large logistic terminals.


Meanwhile highly automated vehicles could revolutionise public transport, decreasing congestion, improving access to mobility and making our cities safer and more liveable.


This shift is already taking place. Many logistical centres, ports and mines around the world are becoming partly or entirely autonomous. Vehicles with high levels of automation are being trialled and automated minibuses are being operated in urban or suburban environments in several European cities. 


TDigitalisation is bringing huge growth in vehicle connectivity, with vehicles continuously producing and sharing data. Connectivity can be a key enabler for autonomous transport, allowing vehicles to communicate with each other and the road infrastructure around them, thereby making transport smarter and more efficient.


Connectivity also brings significant benefits for transport logistics, with real-time data enabling users and manufacturers to track how vehicles are being used and how they are performing with far greater precision, enabling efficient logistical flows and greater filling rates. Connectivity also allows maintenance times to be optimised, maximising uptime, reducing fuel consumption and improving overall efficiency. 


Electrification is central in a sustainable, decarbonised transport system. Electric vehicles operate cleanly and quietly, with zero particle and NOx (nitrogen oxides) emissions and a greatly reduced total carbon footprint (electricity provided from fossil-free energy sources). Battery technology is improving rapidly, and other solutions such as fuel cell technology are in development.


While electrification has major benefits for our climate and air quality, it also brings new sustainability challenges. It puts increasing strain on the battery raw materials supply chain, creating knock-on environmental and human rights risks. To be truly sustainable, these risks must be managed carefully.


Mass adoption of electric vehicles are depending on an infrastructure with charging solutions, widely available. The transport industry needs to take an active role in developing this infrastructure, working in partnership with infrastructure providers, electricity producers and governments. 

Renewable fuels

Sustainable transport depends on sustainable energy. While electrification is playing an important role in fulfilling this need, studies such as the Pathways Study  show that renewable fuels are key to decarbonising here and now, at the pace required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.


Renewable fuels such as biogas and biodiesel, in combination with energy efficient combustion powertrains, or used alongside electricity in hybrid powertrains, can reduce the total well-to-wheel carbon emissions of a vehicle by up to 90 percent, compared with fossil diesel.


As biofuels can be derived from organic material such as agricultural waste, they also support circular models of energy sourcing.


Rapidly scaling up the use of renewable fuels is key to achieving the carbon reductions we need to see in the short term. As almost all vehicles on the roads today already can run on renewable fuels, the potential reduction of emissions is huge, also providing cost effectiveness of sustainable solutions to transport providers.