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.