Reforming Transport in Cities: Cleaner Air, Fewer Emissions

Major cities, such as Moscow, Russia, who are experiencing heavy air pollution should consider transport reform–which not only curtails congestion, but can also reduce emissions and particulate matter. (Photo: Alexei Kuznetsov/ Flickr. Slightly modified from original)

3.7 million people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this is the number of individuals who die each year due to air pollution. At this rate, simple math dictates that more than 120 million people will die because of outdoor air pollution by 2050. Unfortunately, however, this estimate of fatalities is optimistic, as air pollution is only on the rise and is being exacerbated by climate change.

While the WHO’s global estimates can appear abstract in nature, the impacts air pollution is wreaking on cities are entirely concrete. Consider, for example, São Paulo, Brazil, where the Health and Sustainability Institute has reported that the number of deaths linked to pollution is three times higher than those caused by traffic accidents. Further, because of air pollution, 7000 people die prematurely every year in São Paulo’s metropolitan area, and each citizen has his/her life expectancy shortened by 1.5 years, on average.

The adverse health effects, like those being experienced in São Paulo, call for immediate and far reaching changes in the way we think about air pollution. Indeed, polluted air has become the largest environmental health risk in the world—an environmental challenge which demands urgent action to reduce emissions. One way countries can significantly improve emissions and decrease air pollution is by reforming transport.

Transport’s Role in Emissions and Pollution

As economies develop and cities grow, the need for transport is increasing at an alarming rate, resulting in enormous hikes in emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that emissions from transport will double by 2050. Indeed, unlike some emitting sectors that are beginning to stagnate, transport is the fastest growing emitting area, beating out both manufacturing and electricity production. However, most concerning in the transport sector has been the rising dominance of the personal vehicle. Startlingly, personal vehicles comprise less than one-third of all trips made in cities, but account for 73 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from city transport.

While varying greatly between countries, transport emissions (light orange) represent a substantial source of CO2.
While varying greatly between countries, transport emissions (light orange) represent a substantial source of CO2.

 

As the graph above indicates, levels of emissions coming from transport vary based on geography and context; to better understand the relationship between transport and emissions on the national level, let’s consider Brazil. In the hierarchy of the largest emitters in the world, Brazil appears in seventhplace. And, between 1990 and 2013, the country’s emissions more than doubled, increasing by 130 percent. During these decades of emissions growth, the transport sector played a dramatic role, and in 2014, accounted for 46.9 percent of all emissions of CO₂ associated with the energy matrix. While only one example, Brazil’s ratio of transport emissions are on par with many other major emitting countries.

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