With the massive growth of the automobile fleet predicted for 2035 can the current technologies reduce the demand for energy, and greenhouse gas emissions and what measures are needed to abate their impact ?
The modern model of mobility
Sustainable mobility means that people and goods can circulate freely and safely by using renewable energy sources without causing dangerous impacts for the planet and its environment. It is only recently that concerns for climate change have begun to raise persistent questions about developed nations’ mobile life style and about the implications of the soaring number of automobiles in the world.
Mechanized mobility has become an essential component of our modern life. Economic prosperity is boosted by different modes of freight transport. The faster the goods are delivered to market the greater the profits. Everyone who has access to modern means of communication can appreciate the freedom and the extent of mobility that inhabitants of economically developed nations enjoy. People in emerging and developing countries aspire to a similar level of mobility.
More and more vehicles
In 2013, it is estimated that about 1 million four-wheeled vehicles are in use worldwide. Numerous studies on the future growth of this fleet predict that it should double by 2050 with all the consequences on air quality, fuel consumption and climate change. According to economic previsions, we can expect growth in prosperity in every region of the world. The changing purchasing power of the various currencies gives a slightly different view from the initial impression of the overall wealth of countries. In consequence the Japanese, European, American people as well as the Chinese people have a far greater purchasing power than that indicated by the growth of GDP.
This model expects that the automobile fleet on the roads worldwide will be in the order of 3 billion vehicles in 2035 that is three times today’s fleet. In other words, almost three to four times today’s physical space, raw materials and fuel, and three to four times the quantity of toxic emissions and of CO2 contributing to climate change (assuming that the characteristics of the vehicles and the distances traveled remain the same as today).
The figures are staggering and the consequences serious
The significant increase in the automobile fleet will occur in regions where both the infrastructure and parking facilities are inadequate for such a number of vehicles. The demand for fuel and natural resources will be huge. Unfortunately, if the demand in terms of mobility follows the current trend, the economic potential points in this direction, then the consequences will be clear, real and serious. No other study has publicly predicted an automobile fleet of such a size. The figures are staggering and the consequences would beggar belief. It would be dangerous to refute the plausible nature of this scenario and not to take the necessary measures to guarantee that it will not be realized. Whatever, to apply our contemporary mobility model to the rest of the world is not sustainably viable and yet however most of the world’s nations are clamoring for this.
Mitigate the impact of the massive growth in the automobile fleet
There are some fabulous technological advances currently available to minimize the impact of the automobile fleet increase:
- Thermal engine technology alone can reduce CO2 emissions and achieve fuel savings of 40 % and 50 % respectively compared to traditional Diesel motors.
- Alternative fuels can replace more conventional fuels, but several of them are alternative forms of fossil fuels whose reserves are also limited; in addition they release into the biosphere the carbon naturally imprisoned during previous generations.
- Fuels from foodstocks are less harmful and once the transitional problems are settled, they represent a viable alternative to replace at least 15 % of our energy demand for transport before having to address the food-fuel issue.
- A significant trend is to opt for lighter vehicles and less gas guzzling ones is also a step in the right direction. However even an apparently substantial change in market share would only bring a modest fall in the net energy demand for transport.
In consequence the real advantage provided by technical developments, together with realistic changes in fuels or CO2 emissions, to the otherwise conventional vehicle market is a net reduction of around an average 40 % per vehicle in Western Europe (given that a little more than half the new vehicles are already powered by diesel) and about 60 % elsewhere. If, as the previsions suggest, the vehicle fleet is multiplied by four and the net energy demand tripled or quadrupled, these advantages, as significant as they are, are nevertheless insufficient to achieve a status quo in terms of CO2 and fossil fuels.
If today’s mobility model continues, the energy demand for terrestrial transport and the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels will almost double and this despite the global deployment of the most advanced transmission technologies and the limitation in size of the vehicle fleet.
Towards a new global mobility
The global mobility model has to change to adopt these solutions and even more. A holistic approach must include political measures, the market, and fiscal and regulatory, to transform today’s model towards a new model by minimizing the fundamental energy intensity of the transport of people and goods. We have to consider the current regulatory standards for the coming decade as a first step and not as an end in themselves. These are the foundations on which we have to build the new era of mobility.
The challenge which faces us is to recognize, at a world level, that these choices are necessary and that we must act early enough so that the transition towards this holistic approach is treated as an opportunity rather than a crisis. If we do not manage to curb it, the natural economic demand in the matter of mobility will exceed our capacity to meet it and we will be facing an era of profound and turbulent change: a crisis of resources, pollution and mobility with all the political and economic consequences which result.