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Transport Category at Katerva

Regardless of the advancement of communication systems and automated processes, we will always need ways to get things (including ourselves) from point A to point B. This is how we set out the stall for our 'Transportation' category which covers innovations and efforts leading to safe and accessible, low- or zero-carbon transportation forms and efforts to improve current methods of mass transportation of materials.


Transport and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)

Although sustainable transport does not form a standalone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) in the 2030 Agenda, it is included directly or indirectly within many of the SDGs, especially those related to food security, health, energy, infrastructure, cities and human settlements, and climate change. Diving deeper into the topic of transport enables us to realise yet again that all the causes and effects of climate change are all interconnected, and can only be addressed in a systemic approach - an approach that has a strong proponent in physicist, systems theorist and deep ecologist, Fritjof Capra. He offers clear and convincing argumentation why climate change is a systemic problem, and why we need deeper understanding of complexity, networks and patterns of organisation and think in terms of relationships patterns and contexts if we want to find sustainable solutions. The essence of his thinking is captured in a 2 minute video; for those with an appetite for more there is the 30 minute version


Transport is central to our lives, but are we moving fast enough to tackle an impending climate crisis?

“We have no option but to reinvent mobility… much of India still takes the bus, walks or cycles – in many cities as much as twenty percent of the population bikes. We do this because we are poor. Now the challenge is to reinvent city planning so that we can do this as we become rich.” Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, 2013, quoted in Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything.


Is a greener world possible given our transport needs?

If the global community fails to act on climate change, the world is on a trajectory to heat up by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, according to a 2012 World Bank report. A more recent report by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate even predicts that rises in average global temperatures could reach 5.8 °C by the year 2100. To put this into perspective, over the past 100 years temperature has risen between 0.4 and 0.8 °C . Author and climate activist Naomi Klein fears, “We may not even survive this. It could raise sea levels by one or two meters. Crops would also suffer. Wheat could plummet as much as 60%. It’s difficult to imagine that a peaceful ordered society could exist.”

Indeed, according to a NASA study from 2018 that looked at 25 years of satellite data, global sea level rise is accelerating incrementally over time rather than increasing at a steady rate, as previously thought, meaning that sea level are expected to rise 26 inches (65 centimeters) by 2100.

While natural processes continue to introduce short term variability, the unremitting rise of CO2 from industrial activities has become the dominant factor in determining our planet’s climate now and in the years to come.

So, how much is the transport sector to blame? According to Forbes, about a third of our primary energy is petroleum used in our transportation, and that is 95% gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. 

The diagram below, sourced from the United States Environment Protection Agency, depicts that the transport sector is responsible for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In developed nations it is more – in the U.S. as much as 29%.

We know that unless we act, emissions are going to keep going up; we know that the responsibility of transport is big; we know that change needs to happen at the level of government, consumer behaviours and the private sector. But what can truly make a difference? 


Reinventing transportation & mobility 

The way we use transport is already changing. Petrol and diesel vehicles are being replaced with new cleaner technologies. Electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells and compressed natural gas are helping to reduce our carbon emission and improve quality of life in our communities with cleaner, less polluted air. Yet while this is encouraging, moving entirely away from fossil fuelled cars seems a long way away, as the graph below shows.

And even while Norway is a shining example, we should not forget that the total population of Norway is only around 5.3 million, compared with a population of around 1,400,000,000 in China, meaning that Norway contributes 0.07% of the world’s population compared with China’s just under 20%. 50% of 5.3 million has a very different effect from the effect that 50% of 1.4 billion would have.

We should also not forget that the above graph is about new car sales only, ignoring how many ‘old’ cars still exist, Drawing on Wards Intelligence, journalist Andrew Chesterton reports that the best estimate of the number of cars, trucks and buses (not including off-road vehicles or heavy machinery) globally in 2016 was around 1.32 billion; today there might well be over 1.4 billion.  

Checking how many electric cars are on the road, the number reported in February 2019 was 5.6 million, a mere 0.04% of the total car population.  So electric cars area clearly a step in the right direction, but equally clearly absolutely insufficient for shifting the needle.

Things look even more bleak when we consider that a fully electric vehicle in Kentucky has lifetime carbon emissions that are not much better than an ordinary modern gasoline car because is it charged mainly with coal-fired electricity in a state that relies to 93% on fossil fuel. Then even making cars lighter by using wood - cellulose nano fibre to be more  precise - as construction material to make cars lighter and hence more efficient, or an app that helps you find a parking space without having to drive round in circles several times, are great, but ultimately only drops in the ocean.

So, in addition to making car journeys ‘greener’, a big challenge is to reduce the overall number of car journeys taken.

If bike engineer Zach Krapfl got it right in his Ted Talk on the future of transportation, 55% of car trips in the USA are under 10 miles. Thinking of another huge challenge, obesity, an obvious solution comes to mind: cycle or walk instead! According to a study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), there are many health benefits to cycling, including better self-perceived general health, better mental health, greater vitality, lower self-perceived stress and fewer feelings of loneliness (another huge and increasing problem of the 21st century).

However, one precondition of people switching to bikes would be the availability of an appropriate infrastructure.  In the USA there are rather too many places where you struggle to even find a pedestrian walkway, let alone an appropriate cycling infrastructure.

As always when in pursuit of sustainability, only a systemic approach offers any chance of truly having an impact.

Cities to learn from include Copenhagen, which has an incredible infrastructure for bikes, surely contributing to the fact that 36% of trips to work or educational institutions are being made on bike. Another leading light on this path is Vancouver. After declaring a climate emergency in February this year, they moved their already ambitious target of making two-thirds of all trips in the city on foot, bicycle, or public transport by 2040, forward to 2030. Given that they had already achieve their 50% target 2 years ahead of schedule - in 2018 instead 2020 - they might well achieve this! 

In Vancouver trips to work on bikes increase by nearly 50% in the last five years - from 6.6% to 11.9%, which is the highest rate for any city in North America. But they did not just set targets, they also worked on creating and improving the infrastructure to ensure these targets could be met. They have introduced AAA rating to measure for the quality of cycle paths.  Only those cycle paths that are suitable for All Ages and Abilities get an AAA rating. While back in 2012 only 15% of Vancouver’s bike infrastructure met the AAA standard, todays it is about 25%, expected to rise to 30% once the current improvement projects are completed in 2022. 

Here some fun and interesting sustainability-oriented innovations in the bicycle space:

  • C3FT, a bicycle-mounted electronic system designed for the purpose of detecting, capturing, and displaying the proximity of passing vehicles with the intent of improving safety - and it seems to work: “The C3FT was essential to the Chattanooga Police Department’s success in reducing cyclist vs motorist crashes by 26% in just one year. The device was used for both enforcement of the TN 3 foot law as well as educational outreach in our community. As part of our Chattanooga Safe Bicycling Initiative, it played a central role in saving lives of our most vulnerable road users, our cyclists.The C3FT device provided a mensurable aspect to testimony in court and a newfound comprehension of perceived distance by violators. I would (and have) recommended it to any agency who has a Safe Passing Law.”
  • with more and more cities offering bikes for hire systems, such as  Stebn Ride & Roll in Egypt, the question arises how to ensure that bikers wear helmets. EcoHelmet, a folding, recyclable helmet is one solution.


In addition to the provision of a suitable infrastructure, the challenge reflected in our introductory quote by Sunita Narain should not be underestimated: people’s mindset. As long as cars are considered to be a reflection of one’s social and economic achievements, bicycles and other alternative means of transport will struggle to replace our currently favourite means of transportation.

If we want to change behaviour there are generally two ways: punishment or rewards. And it seems that reward and positive reenforcement have the longer lasting effect.

One of our Experts, Prof Agnis Stibe who specialises in social transformation, points out that a change in the environment can lead to changes in attitude, and behaviour, as these three are inextricably interlinked; hence a change in one of these three can trigger changes in the others. Interestingly, he has done some work around urban spaces and encouraging more people to use bicycles; using positive reenforcement - as the one showing in the photo below - might be all that is needed.

Of course, taking public transport is also a greener option than jumping in your own vehicle. Greener transport systems are in the making. Elon Musk’s latest invention – hyperloop – is a vehicle transported by electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube and floats above the track using magnetic levitation. It is expected to be ready for commercial operations by 2021. It will travel much faster than trains, will in theory be safer than cars and less damaging to the environment (See Intelligent Transport article).

But even traditional public transportation such as buses and trains can become greener. Whether it is the dutch railway that uses wind to powers its trains or the buses in Karachi, Pakistan which use bio-methane made from cow dung to power the 200 buses of their zero-emission Green Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network (due to start in 2020).  Catering for 320,000 passengers daily, the cheap, clean transportation network will not only reduce carbon emissions by 2.6 million tonnes over 30 years, it will also stop about 3,200 tonnes of cow manure entering the ocean daily, and will save the over 50,000 gallons of fresh water currently used to wash that waste into the ocean.

There are ample opportunities in other parts of the system too:

  • Traffic guidance: be it GLOSA(Green Light Optimized Speed Advisory), developed by Audi, which manages the speed of a car as to avoid having to stop at traffic lights, or Miovision, a could-based traffic network management system where data is used to facilitate more efficient traffic routing, reducing travel time, thereby reducing fuel consumption by up to 20%, or Routific which helps organisations save time and fuel with route optimization.
  • Roads: Plastic, the inappropriate disposal of which causes no end of trouble for our planet, particularly the oceans, is used in road construction,  be it in India  or the Netherlands.
  • An even more radical concept is proposed by Israel-based ElectReon: transmitting power to electric vehicles via the the road they drive on. Placing unique copper coils along a kilometer of a road can be constructed in one night without interrupting daily life. After deploying the coils, the road is covered with asphalt, and everything is ready to go.

While we often hear that we should stop flying if we truly want to reduce our carbon footprint - as also argued by climate activist George Monbiot in a TV interview, vehicles remain biggest contributor to transportation-caused emissions, and least for the countries for which we found some data, e.g. see the graphs for Canada and the USA below.  

Still, emissions from air transport have doubled since 1990. Unfortunately, aviation’s contribution to climate change is predicted to grow from approximately 20,000 flights year globally to 50,000 by 2040. This is, according to an article in the NY Times, especially due to the rise of the middle classes, particularly in Asia, as people take more holidays, visit family and travel on business. Emission reducing technology in aviation is also nowhere near as advanced as in motor vehicles – see FT article. Although British airline easyJet does have a plan to fly electric passenger jets on a few routes by 2027 – see Reuters article, and there are other interesting developments in the aircraft development pipeline such as as ion powered aircraft - have a look.

However, many breakthroughs in technology may launch us into the future, saving time, but sadly not preventing greenhouse gas emissions. The Big Falcon Rocket is a privately funded spacecraft in development by SpaceX. Although it will be able to fly to most places on earth in under 30 minutes and anywhere in under an hour, the fuel could become a big problem – see Science Focus article.

If ceasing to fly or reducing the number of flights you take isn’t realistic, you can offset your carbon when purchasing a flight, though only a few airlines make this easy to do as part of the purchasing process. Naomi Klein argues that we all engage in a kind of “ecological amnesia”, whereby we know our impact yet ignore it, “We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything”. But if you want to face up to the truth, and want to understand what your carbon footprint is, you can input your data in the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s online tool and see what percentage of your footprint comes down to travel.

While facing up to the truth might motivate individuals to modify their behaviour, it seems less likely to have an impact on organisations.  As Naomi Klein points out in her book This changes everything, big change must come at the level of government, arguing that there’s little incentive for the private sector to do much without government tax, and that existing incentive schemes are nowhere near strong enough to tackle climate change. Along similar vein to George Monbiot, she argues, “If we don’t think about how our economy is structured then we’re never getting to the root of the problem”. 


Transportation - the bigger picture

Transport doesn’t just pertain to vehicles, infrastructure and operations, but connects with many other areas. Let’s not forget that transport exists not just for passengers but for cargo. It seems that developed countries don’t take full responsibility for logging climate change when it comes to global trade, and blame it on manufacturing nations like China. While free trade China is indeed responsible for two thirds’ increase in global emissions between 2002 and 2008, 48% of their total emissions was related to producing goods for export, predominately to developed countries.

While global air-cargo business now accounts for more than a third of world trade by value, over 90 percent of world trade is carried across the world's oceans by some 90,000 marine vessels, referenced in a recent article as ”some of the biggest and dirtiest machines on the planet”. The author continues that, "It has been estimated that just one of these container ships, the length of around six football pitches, can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. The emissions from 15 of these mega-ships match those from all the cars in the world.” 

There is some light on the horizon. Eco Marine Power, a Japanese company, is designing cargo ships that are fitted with rigid sails that are fitted with solar panels; these ships will be powered to 80% by wind, and to 20% by the Sun. Another example is Hydroville which launched a small passenger shuttle in November 2017 that runs on hydrogen, producing zero pollution. The company hopes that its technology can eventually be used to power cargo ships. 

Interestingly, our food - or rather our desire for eating other out-of-season fruit all year round - is another big contributor to transportation-based emissions. Calculating ‘Food Miles’ is a way of measure how far food has travelled before it reaches the consumer; some Food Mile facts for the UK include, 

  • 95% of fruit comes from abroad.
  • Half of vegetables are imported.
  • 30% of all goods transported by lorry around the UK are foodstuffs.
  • Food imports increased from 13.5m tonnes in 1992 to just over 16m tonnes by 2002.
  • Whilst only 1% of food is transported by air, it accounts for 11% of carbon emissions.
  • Rainforest the size of ten football pitches is felled every second, some of which to make room for exported food crops.
  • Since 1992, the amount of food flown by ‘plane has risen by 140%.

Our desire to eat food from far away is not only environmentally unfriendly, it is also costly. According to Carolyn Steel, food urbanist, “81 cent of every dollar goes towards marketing and transportation of the food, not back to the farmers themselves.” Please note, eating seasonal food is at least as important as eating locally grown food as growing food in heated greenhouses can be more energy intensive than importing it!

To sum it all up, transport-based pollution has many sources, and while government interventions are important and influential, particularly at the organisational and societal levels, there are many ways in which each and everyone of us can make a contribution:

  • - cycling and walking for short journeys
  • - public transport for longer journeys
  • - train instead of planes
  • - buying seasonal food
  • - buying locally grown food
  • - buying less imported goods
  • - buying less

Getting wide-spread acceptance, particularly for the second half of the list, will not be easy as so much of the global mindset holds on to the belief in and necessity of eternal growth. The best - and perhaps only - way to shift this mindset is to change our own patterns and behaviours.

If you know of any exciting sustainable, disruptive innovation that help transportation of a sustainable track, let us know! (Of course, any other sustainable disruptive innovations are welcome too!)

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