Time is Running Out – Carbon Markets Cannot Replace More Ambitious National Commitments – Particularly in Transport

By Marion Vieweg and Daniel Bongardt


At the UN Climate Conference (COP25) that just ended in Madrid, acting COP President Carolina Schmidt (see picture, Source UNFCCC Twitter) was disappointed. While UN Secretary-General António Guterres few days before warned of the impacts associated with accelerating climate change, and called on governments to demonstrate increased ambition and commitment in cutting emissions, the conference failed to create an international market for emissions trading. Even if next year at COP26 in Glasgow a global carbon market is established, it would not replace the need for stronger action at the domestic level. Signatories to the Paris Agreement are expected to submit revised national action plans – known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – by 2020. This is a crucial opportunity for ramping up commitments, as current pledges are insufficient to avert dangerous climate change.


Time for Action

However, COP25 underscored that the time for action is now! NDCs need to “represent a progression and reflect its highest possible ambition” (see decision CMA/2019/L.4 paragraph 5 and 6). Dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be needed in the coming decades to keep global warming below 1.5°C. While e.g. the power sector has already made strides towards decarbonisation, the transport sector is a key source of concern, as vehicle emissions continue to rise in most countries.

Without swift, ambitious action to reengineer the transport sector, it will be impossible to meet the 1.5°C objective. Yet beyond merely reducing emissions, we should harness this transformative moment to usher in a just, sustainable and safe transport system, one that contributes to meeting both the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Transport needs to be an integral part in almost all NDCs, otherwise well below 2 degrees is not doable.

Source: Global NDC Conference (2019): Takeaways on Transport


The transport sector is currently in a state of flux due to rapid technological change. New technologies and business models could propel the transformation of the sector in a positive direction, yet proactive policy action is needed to ensure that future developments are truly beneficial. Given the scope of change required, a comprehensive policy approach will be essential to coordinate trends, provide attractive alternatives to unsustainable modes of transport and maximise the benefits for the climate and human welfare.

The next five years will be crucial for steering the sector towards zero-carbon transport. In addition to implementing GHG reduction measures, countries around the globe have been establishing systems to monitor and report their achievements. Decisive action will be required over the next years to achieve commitments set in the first NDCs. Furthermore, in just a few years, preparations will begin on the new round of NDC enhancements slated for 2025. This will provide countries another opportunity to set more ambitious targets as they learn from their experiences and gain a better understanding of untapped potentials. If the next round of NDCs do not outline the way to zero emissions – including a decarbonised transport sector – it will be impossible to stay below the 2°C threshold, much less 1.5°C. Indeed, based on the current level of commitment, global heating is on track towards 3°C or more by the end of the century.


We need to take more comprehensive climate actions

In recent years, transport sector experts have made great advances in increasing awareness of the ways in which transport can be made more sustainable. The global community is far better informed about where we stand in implementing climate action, which policy options exist and the potential offered by different measures. However, officials who work in national departments for transport policy, particularly those in developing countries, often have a difficult time accessing relevant information or translating it into concrete measures.

Net decarbonization of the transport sector by 2050 is possible, but will require an immediate and concerted turnaround of global policy action.

Source: Paris Process on Mobility and Climate: COP24 Key Transport Messages


Against this backdrop, we have conducted a detailed survey of existing transport-related roadmaps, calls for action, discussion papers and research findings, distilling them into six essential recommendations for policymakers and other officials dealing with climate action and ambition in the transport sector. As policymakers draft their upcoming NDC revisions, we hope they will heed these recommendations, which have been broadly formulated to allow adaptation to divergent national contexts. But even if these recommendations are not adopted directly in the NDC, they can help to guide meaningful activities. In addition to enabling emission reductions, the recommendations address various sustainable development challenges in the transport sector. Beyond fighting climate change, taking action in all six areas will thus help to reduce air pollution, noise and congestion, while also enhancing access to transport, road safety and the efficiency of the freight sector.

Figure 1: Six Action Recommendations for Policymakers for Enhancing Climate Ambition in Transport

Six Action Recommendations for Policymakers on Enhancing Climate Ambition in Transport


1. Shifting the paradigm towards zero-carbon targets for 2050: Moving away from the marginal reduction of emissions and towards the creation of a zero-carbon transport system by 2050 is essential for reaching global climate goals – and for making transport more equitable, sustainable and safe. We cannot rely on technologies that only reduce; we need a comprehensive approach to avoid, shift, improve and electrify. Decarbonisation targets should reflect this multifaceted approach.

2. Ensuring the resilience of transport systems: Transport systems are vulnerable to climate change. Slow-onset impacts, such as sea level rise and increasing temperatures, as well as extreme climate events can disrupt services and destroy infrastructure. Governments need to ensure that all levels of transport planning develop resilient solutions to address the effects of a changing climate.

3. Empowering cities with national support: The world’s population predominantly lives in urban areas. Accordingly, important aspects of the transport transformation will take place in cities. In many places, urban transport is associated with significant impairments to quality of life due to congestion, noise and poor air quality, among other factors. National policymakers must actively support cities in building sustainable urban transport systems. This will not only help decarbonise the transport sector; it will also improve the quality of urban life.

4. Investing in sustainable rail, inland shipping and multimodal hubs: Investing in clean, efficient rail infrastructure and multimodal hubs will be essential for increasing the availability of mobility options while drastically reducing energy demand in long-distance passenger and freight transport. Combined with increased electrification and innovative zero-emission technologies for shared mobility, trucks and ships, these investments will enable cleaner, healthier and safer transport. Ideally, these investments should go hand-in-hand with the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies.

5. Enhancing efficiency in freight and logistics: The movement of freight is essential for modern economies, but increasingly it also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and congestion, among other negative effects. Governments need to direct developments towards long-term sustainability and competitiveness, which also means reducing emissions in the sector. Currently, these issues are receiving too little attention.

6. Accelerating electrification with renewable energy: The use of electric vehicles powered exclusively by renewable electricity is the most efficient way to decarbonise the transport sector. Electrification will also massively reduce air and noise pollution, and, when combined with shared mobility options, will substantially reduce overall system costs. In countries with relatively lower consumer purchasing power – such as Chile, China or India – the electrification of public transport and freight can start now, and higher private electric-vehicle ownership rates can be sought as a broader range of more affordable electric vehicles become available. The freight sector should become electric wherever possible and hydrogen or e-fuels should be used as needed to supplement electrification.


Enhanced collaboration and good data will be key

At the international level, carbon markets will provide an opportunity for knowledge exchange and enhanced collaboration. At the domestic level, national governments must work with all stakeholders to define the best way to facilitate the deep transformation of the transport sector. Case studies on NDC development have shown that collaboration in tandem with access to good data and analysis are key factors for success. Transforming transport will also require greater integration with the power sector. The NDC revision process can be a catalysing moment that brings different levels of government, industry and civil society together, enabling the formulation of a common vision for the future. Once a vision has been elaborated, it should guide policy choices and investment decisions. Furthermore, action must be swift – significant change must be initiated no later than 2023 if complete decarbonisation is to occur by 2050.

Collaboration between the public and private sectors is a growing reality that must be further facilitated.

Source: Paris Process on Mobility and Climate: COP25 Key Transport Messages


Conducting evidence-based analysis is an excellent foundation for engaging with stakeholders and improving the knowledge base in developing countries, as robust insights are crucial for creating a sustainable transport system. In Vietnam, for example, the Ministry of Transport recently collaborated with researchers at GIZ and the World Bank to undertake a comprehensive study of the transport sector, titled Pathway to Low-Carbon Transport. The results are now flowing into the country’s NDC revision process and strategies for the sector being developed by the Vietnamese Ministry of Transport.

The study provides useful insights concerning how the Vietnamese government can raise its level of ambition in transport. For example, electrifying motorbikes in Vietnam could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in relation to a business-as-usual scenario by more than 3.5 Mt of CO2e by 2030 – assuming a 30% in-use population of electric motorbikes. This penetration rate would have net economic benefits as fuel savings would exceed spending on new vehicles and infrastructure. The collaborative work on the study, which involved a range of stakeholders, has augmented the climate change expertise of the Ministry of Transport, which can now play a more effective role in the NDC revision process.


Six recommendations aim to inform regional peer exchange on enhancing NDCs

COP25 in Madrid called for more and more ambitious climate action. In the next few month, all countries will prepare for reviewing and enhancing their climate goals and submit their NDCs to the UNFCCC’s Registry. The Advancing Transport Climate Strategies Project, which is being carried out by GIZ and funded through the International Climate Initiative of the German Ministry of Environment (BMU), is supporting Transport Ministries in this process. In addition, we are currently developing a paper that more fully explains the six recommendations highlighted above. This paper, which will be directed at policymakers and other transport sector actors in developing countries, will provide guidance on what needs to be achieved, highlight potential policy options, and identify the stakeholders who should be involved in the process.

The zero-draft document is currently available for review. If you are interested in being involved in the review process, please contact us. The final document is scheduled for release in early 2020. It will be distributed and further discussed with transport and environmental ministries in a series of regional peer-learning workshops. These workshops will provide a platform for government officials to collectively explore challenges and opportunities in the transport sector. The first workshop is scheduled for late January 2020 in Nairobi, Kenya, and the second will take place in mid-February in Bogotá, Colombia. Workshops in Asia are slated for March/April 2020.

10 Principles for Sustainable Urban Transport