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FEATURE STORY April 22, 2020

Earth Day 2020: Could COVID-19 Be the Tipping Point for Transport Emissions?

A man wearing a mask on a bus. Photo: © Chapman Chow/Unsplash

Chapman Chow/Unsplash


  • Transport currently accounts for a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions—a number that has been rising steadily.
  • There is concern that emissions from transport could accelerate even further after the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • To avoid this scenario, the World Bank can help client countries develop cleaner transport systems that will support economic recovery and improve people's lives.

The world cannot win the battle against climate change without changing the way people move. Transport already represents a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions—a figure that could increase to 33% under a business-as-usual scenario.

The scale of the problem is made evident by the stark contrast in many cities’ air quality from before and during the COVID-19 urban transport slowdown. Like pollution, GHG emissions dropped significantly in the wake of the outbreak, as health concerns and sweeping movement restrictions have slashed the demand for mobility around the world. Traffic jams suddenly feel like a distant memory, shipping companies have cancelled hundreds of sailings, and some of the world’s largest airports are using their runways to park idle planes.

The fear of bottled-up emissions

But this trend is likely to be short-lived. The virus will eventually subside, and governments, businesses, and people will want to make up for lost time and minimize the economic impact of the pandemic. If previous global crises are any indication, this could lead to a net increase in emissions, including from transport. Following the 2008-2009 recession, carbon emissions soared by a record 6% in one year, in part because many of the investment programs that were meant to stimulate the economy went to carbon-intensive industries.

“In a context of economic emergency and low oil prices, there is a growing sense that transport emissions will bounce back after the current crisis. However, the post-COVID recovery could also be an opportunity for countries to scale up cleaner, more sustainable transport solutions that already exist,” said Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure. “Boosting low-carbon transport will not only benefit the climate but also support long-term economic growth, create quality jobs, and connect more people to opportunity.”

The World Bank has been working to support that transition. By the end of Fiscal Year 2019, 52% of the Bank’s transport projects contributed to climate change mitigation or adaptation. “In the face of the ongoing pandemic, we have strengthened our focus on climate-smart transport, which could be a powerful way to rekindle economic growth,” said Guangzhe Chen, the World Bank’s Global Director for Transport. “The crisis has increased the fiscal pressure on governments around the world, making financial sustainability an even more important factor in our support to clients. Mobilizing private sector finance could be part of the solution.”

Supporting cleaner transport modes

With 70% of the global population expected to live in cities by 2050, curbing emissions from urban transport is among the most urgent priorities. In developing countries, many city dwellers spend a good portion of their time stuck in traffic inside private cars or old diesel buses—at great cost to climate, economic productivity, and public health.

Bank teams provide governments with the financing and knowledge they need to develop better alternatives. Depending on the local context, this may mean implementing a modern traffic management system, improving the design of public spaces to promote cycling and walking, or, very importantly, investing in reliable mass transit systems such as metro, light rail, Bus Rapid Transit, etc. All of these solutions can help keep cities moving while reducing the carbon footprint of urban transport.

That is the approach followed by Quito, where the World Bank is co-financing Ecuador’s first metro line: once fully operational, the new metro will save an estimated 65,000 tons of greenhouse gases every year, and bring almost 400,000 passengers a day closer to jobs, schools, and essential services.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a huge challenge at public transit systems. Passenger numbers are in freefall, and some operators have had to suspend fare payments as a way to limit interactions between staff and passengers. Transit agencies that were already underfunded are seeing their revenue plummet. Even after the lockdowns come to an end, health concerns could cause people to favor private cars over public transport. Continued support to the mass transit sector, including to increase its preparedness for future crises, will be critical over the next few years.

Freight transport is another area that requires special attention. In emerging markets like Africa, India, or Latin America, trucks alone are responsible for about 40% of transport emissions. Moving some of that traffic from roads to railways or waterways will substantially reduce emissions—and logistics costs. India, with support from the World Bank, is currently converting a 1,360-km stretch of the Ganges River into a modern waterway that will eventually carry 65 million tons of cargo a year, cutting an estimated 162,000 of GHG emissions annually.

Technology to the rescue

Still, the shift to public transport, railways, or waterways can only go so far. By 2050, the number of cars on the road is set to double, while trucks will still account for about 60% of all freight traffic. That means we will not be able to reach global climate goals unless we drastically reduce emissions from road vehicles.

One way to achieve this is by accelerating the adoption of modern and efficient vehicles, which burn up to 50% less fuel. In Cairo, a World Bank-supported program to renew the city’s aging taxi fleet translated into GHG savings of 350,000 tons between 2012 and 2018. To amplify these gains, the global community must jointly support efforts to implement sensible emission standards, and restrict the sale of outdated, polluting and unsafe used vehicles from developed to developing countries.

Electric vehicles could also help change the game, if powered by clean energy sources. The market is growing quickly: within the next five years, governments around the world are aiming to increase the number of EVs from 3 to 30 million. Studies are being done to understand how much electric mobility can contribute to decarbonizing transportation. A recent World Bank study shows that in some developing countries, locally-tailored electric mobility solutions have had environmental and social benefits. The report lays out principles for building stronger EV markets at all income levels.

Yet electric mobility is just one of the many disruptive technologies that have been rocking transport. Digital solutions are quickly transforming the way we get around: real-time transit information is making public transport more attractive; smartphone apps are facilitating the deployment of ridesharing and bikesharing; and online platforms are creating new ways to match the supply and demand of transport services. This all translates into increased efficiency and, down the line, has the potential to lower emissions.

Market transformations

With much of the world at a standstill, virtual connectivity is replacing physical movement, consumers are finding new ways to shop for goods and services, employers are becoming more comfortable with the idea of staff working from home, and businesses everywhere are considering shorter supply chains.

Whether the current situation will lead to a long-term transformation of the global transport market remains to be seen. But if it does, the impact on emissions could be significant—and infinitely more meaningful than the temporary dip brought by the pandemic.