Planes, trains, and automobiles: What are they doing to our planet?


It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the transportation industry is one of the worst culprits when it comes to carbon emissions, and that to reach the Net Zero Emissions (NZE) by 2050 goal, the whole industry needs a major overhaul. But just how much is the industry to blame for the current state of the climate? And is it on track to meet the NZE by 2050 goal? I wanted to get a better general understanding of the state of the industry and figure out how much of a difference EVs make in lowering the industry’s overall carbon output. This is what I found out.

Surveying the situation

If you thought the severity of the transportation industry for the climate was a bit overblown, you were sadly mistaken. Emissions from transportation make up roughly 20% of global CO2 levels. This is a pretty hefty number. Where does this insane amount of carbon come from you may ask? The simple answer: burning petroleum-based fuel. Transport vehicles still rely on oil products for 91% of their energy and take up 25% of the world’s oil use.

Burning fuel emits billions of tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere each year and the majority of this comes from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. In fact, three-quarters of the transportation industry’s CO2 emissions come from ICE cars and trucks.

That’s a lot of statistics to take in but what it all comes down to is that road vehicles are a major issue.

What about planes? The aviation industry was responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions in 2022 (having almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels).  This is a small percentage in relative terms, but the problem is that decarbonising aviation is exceptionally challenging. And historically, growth in activity has outpaced improvements in fuel efficiency; IEA reports that over the last decade, fuel efficiency has improved by about 1.8% per year but demand has grown by over 5% per year. In terms of aiming for the NZE scenario, those are not good numbers.

International shipping also makes up 2% of global emissions. Fuel provides a whopping 99% of its energy use, which makes it unsurprising that if it is aiming for the NZE by 2050 scenario, the maritime shipping sector is steering pretty off course. To meet the goal, it will need to reduce its emissions by almost 15% by 2030. It is not currently on track to hit this target.

Where does this leave us?

Needless to say, none of this inspires much hope. It seems that on the whole, the transportation industry really needs to up its game if it is to salvage its terrible environmental reputation. How can it do so?

Cars and trucks are by far the most advanced form of transport when it comes to decarbonisation, which is a relief considering that they are the biggest polluters by a country mile. Both EV technology and policy improvements have helped move the road transport industry in a greener direction. The EU will ban sales of new ICE vehicles from 2035 which is expected to incentivise more research and innovation in the EV sector and should help bring the price of EVs down. There is still a long road ahead, however. More government buy-in is needed to increase the use of electric trucks; only China has electrified freight transport to a significant degree (BYD started off as an electric truck company, of course).  It is also essential that we continue to achieve new innovations for EV batteries. Developments in sodium-ion battery technology have been positive and could be a game-changer for the industry. Increasing the use of non-extractive mining to create a closed-loop system, i.e., extracting lithium, cobalt nickel and copper from old batteries, will also be massively beneficial. All in all, the road transport industry is headed in the right direction. If it wants to meet the NZE by 2050 goal, though, it will need to put the pedal to the metal.

But just because road vehicles aren’t doing too badly, we shouldn’t let planes and ships off the hook. Both of these are hopelessly behind.

Many changes will need to happen in aviation for it to catch up. This includes new and improved airframe and engine design like blended wing-body aircrafts or ultra-high-bypass ration jet engines which can reduce fuel burn by over 20%. The fuel requirements of ships must also be reduced, which can happen with the help of wind propulsion and assistance. And for both planes and ships, alternative fuels have the potential to play a big part in reducing emissions. Innovations in the use of hydrogen, ammonia and methanol for running ships is promising, and hybrid electric aircrafts are in the works which is positive.

The takeaway

So, progress is indeed being made in the transport industry, but it all needs to happen much faster. Considering that transportation makes up such a massive percentage of global carbon emissions, second only to the energy sector, this needs to be a main priority if we are to reach net zero.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Josie is a writer and researcher who wants to do her bit to make the world a little greener. She holds an MA in Philosophy from Stellenbosch University and is currently working on her doctoral proposal.

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