Transportation of goods and people contributes a significant amount towards the global greenhouse gas emissions. Most countries have looked towards the electrification of their transportation sectors as the answer to reduce emissions. To do so requires greater resource extractivism, which has substantial destructive consequences for the environment and for communities in the vicinity. Revolutionising public transportation systems offers a less damaging solution to decarbonise the world.
The transportation sector accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions, contributed by the transport of goods and people by land, air, and sea. Any holistic solution to the climate and biodiversity crisis must address all sectors of the international economy, and to successfully decarbonise the transportation sector. However, mainstream media and various business interests are pushing the narrative that as long as all transportation goes electric, all will be well. This is not the reality and relying on this narrative has serious repercussions related to the overconsumption of resources and emissions.
The status of the environmental crisis is clear: we are on track to a global heating of 4-5 degrees Celsius by 2100 if we don’t make significant changes to our economic and social system. Even if the non-binding targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement were met, it would only limit heating to between 2 and 4.5C. Aside from carbon emissions, drastic biodiversity loss, resource extractivism, and water and air pollution all pose serious threats to our way of life.
So, the transportation sector contributes a quarter of global greenhouse gases emissions. Around 75% of these emissions originate from road transportation, 45% of which is contributed from passenger travel. Aviation and shipping account for around 10% each, with rail at 1%. Considering nearly 50% of all transport emissions (or 12% of global emissions) comes from passenger road travel, we need a solution to significantly decarbonise the transportation sector whilst alleviating the pressures of resource extractivism.
Electrifying Transportation Requires Resource Extractivism
Resource extractivism is often ignored in conversations about the climate crisis, particularly in Western narratives. Broadly defined, extractivism is an unsustainable and exploitative extraction of resources from an area by a private or public company. Extractivism is inextricably linked to excess resource use and a product of a capitalist system of production and consumption. For the past several decades, global consumption of resources has become exponentially high. Today, we extract and consume 60 billion tons of raw materials per year, 50% more than we did 30 years ago. High-income countries are the prime instigators of excess consumption – an individual in North America consumes 90kg of resources each day, across the whole supply chain of the goods and services they use, compared to 10kg consumption by an individual in Africa.
Excess resource consumption and extractivism have serious environmental and social effects: child labour and bonded labour, dispossession of people from their land by multinational corporations, disruptions of alternative forms of life, soil erosion and run-offs, pollution of water supplies, destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems. Based on current patterns of consumption and economic growth, global resource use will have tripled by 2050. Thus, resource consumption and extractivism cannot be ignored in any conversation surrounding environmental protection and justice.
The majority of the resources we use are finite, and those required for electrifying the transportation sector are often particularly scarce. For example, lithium, cobalt, and manganese are all rare earth minerals used for electric car batteries, with few known reserves around the world. Moreover, these resources are almost exclusively located in the Global South: 50% of cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 58% of lithium in Chile. Multinational mining companies are racing to win ‘ownership’ of the sites. This creates exploitative relationships between unaccountable firms and local populations, in terms of employment contracts, violence and dispossession, biodiversity and agricultural disruption, and polluted water supplies among others. Thus, the finite nature of the resources required for electrifying road transportations combined with the oppressive and destructive nature of extraction make for the argument as to why, aside from cost, we cannot all buy electric cars and alleviate the crisis. We simply do not have enough rare minerals to power all the electric cars around the world.
Studies have shown that future demand will outstrip the supply of known mineral reserves, such as cobalt, by more than 400% by 2050. In addition, the increased energy demand placed on grids internationally would be significant, as well as the huge amounts of additional infrastructure required to establish charging points in every home.
Revolutionising Public Transport is the Answer to Decarbonise Countries
Public transport. The predominance of ‘car culture’ in many high-income countries has relegated public transport to a less ‘cool’ status and option. Various extents of underfunding and budget cuts have also led to dilapidated, out-of-date, and limited bus and train services internationally. However, a low-cost (or free), extensive, high-quality public transport system has many more benefits than individual car usage. The 2014 IPCC report cites the prioritisation of pedestrian and public transit systems result in “higher levels of social and economic prosperity” around the world. Whilst the negative effects the transportation sector and extractivism have on our environment are universal, public transportation systems are often not.
Take the United Kingdom for instance. Transportation costs UK households approximately 13% of their annual income, with public transportation being one of the most expensive in the world. The privatisation of the UK rail system in the 1980s saw prices rise and government subsidies significantly increase. Providing a free or low-cost public transportation system would open the door for those who are unable to travel for work or leisure without breaking the bank. Establishing a wide network of services, connecting villages, towns, and cities across the UK would support the equal distribution of economic activities, and reduce the isolation experienced by many towns, which have been left behind since Britain’s deindustrialisation at the end of the 20th century. In addition to fairer economic distribution, this system would provide greater convenience and accessibility for its residents, as well as alleviate traffic congestion in urban areas.
The environmental benefits of an extensive public transportation system to decarbonise cannot be understated. Resource consumption would be significantly reduced, particularly of rare earth minerals required for electrification, thereby alleviating the effects of extractivism in terms of pollution and biodiversity loss, as well as the harm caused to communities living in the vicinity of these resources. Removing the need to construct electrification infrastructures for every home and office with a car would also prevent wasteful use of resources and energy consumption. Emissions could be cut in half, as modelled by TransLink in the United States.
Under a socialised public transportation system, the potential of introducing a circular economy model would be much easier. A circular economy model moves beyond our linear model of production and consumption, promoting the recycling, reuse, and repurposing of as many resources as possible. Whilst The Economist discusses how opportunities for recycling electric vehicles are ever-increasing, under public ownership the disposal of transportation vehicles could be mandated to be committed to recycling. Ensuring that metals and rare earth minerals used in public transportation are reused for future models of bus and train can contribute to the reduction of resource consumption and the overall sustainability of the sector.
The transportation sector globally needs to significantly change in the next decades. The electrification of private vehicles is not a workable or equitable solution. The environmental degradation, disruption, and violence carried out towards marginalised communities, coupled with insufficient reserves of rare minerals make this clear. Revolutionising the public transportation sector is key to decarbonise countries, and the wider global scale. Fortunately, a better path forward is clear: limit resource consumption with a shift to a circular economy and provide a high-quality, low-cost, electrified bus and rail network to the benefit of both citizens and our planet.
Featured image by: Flickr