2050 estimates demand radical changes in transport

Urgent action is required in the area of sustainable transport to stem global warming according to Julia King, a Professor and Vice-Chancellor of Aston University.  In 2007, she was appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to lead the “King Review” to examine the vehicle and fuel technologies that, over the next 25 years, could help to reduce carbon emissions from road transport. Speaking at the Environmental Protection Agency’s lecture on Climate Change, Ms King said that the huge problem of C02 emissions will raise the global temperature by 4°C by the end of the century. By Christina Finn

John Bowman who was chairing the lecture said that Ms King’s report on sustainable transport is likely to make her as famous as Pat Buchanan in the environmental arena.


The result of temperatures rising by 4°C would be extremely detrimental to the world causing a 40% reduction in maize and wheat yields and 30% reduction in rice yields in China. A radical cut in global emissions by 2050 is needed in order to maintain a global temperature rise of just 2°C. The problem, Ms  King said is “finding ways to adapt to that rise”.

The UK must reduce emissions by 80% and Ireland by 82% by 2050 if targets are to be met. She acknowledged that these were huge percentages. “Big numbers need new technologies and big changes.”

In 2007 the second largest C02 emissions in the UK were generated by domestic transport, the first being electricity. Ireland is similar to the UK, with the exception that agriculture is our largest producer of C02 emissions, followed by energy, and with transport producing 21% of our emissions.

Road transport is a hugely dominant feature globally and in the US it accounts for 33% of emissions, said Ms King. She stressed that emissions will increase if new, innovative and alternative transport technologies are not introduced. The trend shows that oil will reach $200 dollars per barrel, she said. 

In 2010 the global population stood at 6 billion people with 850 million cars worldwide. By 2050 estimates show that the population will rise to 9 billion people with 3 billion cars worldwide. “There will also be a change in where people live. By 2050 some 6.5 billion people will live in cities and urban areas. These will most likely be the rich middle classes who will probably want to live in a liveable temperature, with clean air and clean skies.”

The major problem in transport emissions is cars and vans, which account for 68% of transport. The 2050 target for global emissions in 22 gigatonnes which works out at 2.5 tonnes of C02 per year per person. A new car produces an average of 2.4 tonnes of C02 per year.

Another challenge said Ms King is the average distance driven by car owners. Since 1950 we have driven further and further distances each year. “There has been a relentless upward trend in the distances we are driving each year. There are only dips in the trend in times of recessions, when people are not driving as much.” Vehicle ownership is also a challenge for the future with some predictions of over 2 billion cars being owned by 2020. Where we put all these cars was also something that had to considered said Ms King. A diagram of land usage in Albuquerque, New Mexico shows that there is nearly more space for car parking than there is for humans. Ms King quoted a research source from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who estimated that drivers burn 30-40% of thier total fuel consumption while looking for car parking.

Challenging behaviour

“Areas like transport and energy are going to have to over-achieve if we are achieve these reductions in emissions,“ said Ms King. So how do we do it? “We need efficient people, efficient cities, and efficient cars.”

“It is amazing what we can achieve by challenging our behaviour. Even today, if we could convince people to just buy the lowest emission car in their class we could save up to 40% on new car emissions and even more if people choose a smaller car,” said Ms King. She said there was evidence that car-buying habits are beginning to change with more sales in lower emission cars. “The governments know that it is economically rational to start the changes early but it is hard to achieve. People are still attracted to big cars, they are still symbols of status,” she said.

How we design our cities has a big impact on how people behave, she said. “Governments need to use policies to make dense cities. Cities should grow by compaction rather than dispersal, and these cities need to be subsidised with clean public transport systems."

An interesting discussion was held with the audience on how vehicles are fuelled. King said there were many options of new technologies in car transport and fuels, such as bio fuels, electricity and hydrogen.  She said biofuels are interesting but that it could still be quite a "dangerous" technology and “needs a lot more research”.

“What I think we can start using now is electricity to power our vehicles,” she said. “We are eventually going to need all these solutions, there is no point changing our dependence on oil to a dependency on lithium.”  While she said the electric cars were the best option at the moment, many argued that these vehicles are not much different in terms of emissions. Ms King maintained that they were still the better option even in comparison to hybrid cars. “A common concern people have is 'range anxiety'. Ninety seven per cent of people drive less than 50 miles a day which an electric car is capable of doing.”

Audience members at the event voiced their opinions about other options such as the sugar beet potential to produce ethanol and the recent EU court of Auditors report which admitted that the decision to close down the industry was based on out of date data.

One man commented that ethanol is being promoted extensively in EU and Scotland adding that Ireland once had the capacity to produce this fuel source with our sugar beet industry. Ms  King said: “There will always be local solutions that will be applicable in certain areas. But there needs to be global demand for a global market, and there is a temptation that you will end up cutting down more rain forests to facilitate these solutions.” She said that she thought biofuels will be huge in terms of aviation. “I think there is a role for biofuels, aviation needs to look for an alternative, aviation will be enormous users of biofuels.”

The economist Eddie Hobbs has actively highlighted the issue of peak oil production maintaining that Ireland must tap into the massive sugar beet potential that it has when it comes to bioethanol production.

The 2005-2012 Kyoto Protocol is the only emission reduction agreement presently that nations have signed up to. There was no global agreement deal following the 2009 Copenhagen or 2010 Cancun  Climate Change conferences. “We haven’t got global deal but we still have targets to meet," said Ms King. "The longer we leave it the more expensive it will be to reach our targets. The problem is governments change, we don’t vote governments in until 2050, the trouble is to keep governments focused on targets."