By John McGarrity for Fastmarkets Energycensus

The world’s addiction to fossil fuels in transport – and what countries could and should do to switch to cleaner and greener alternatives – is one of the key issues dominating UN climate talks that formally got underway in Glasgow on Monday.

The two-week COP26 meeting faces an uphill task in getting agreement on key strands so that the 2015 Paris climate agreement can be put into action and big emissions cuts can be achieved in the nearer-term, rather than the longer-scale 2050 net zero commitments that have predominated coverage in the run-up to the Glasgow meeting.

Without much stronger commitments on cutting carbon by 2030 and the policies to deliver them, the chances of reducing the threat of runaway climate change will fast diminish, scientists say, and endanger the wellbeing of billions of people as well as tipping the world’s ecology into mass extinction.

Against this grim backdrop, COP26 will shine a harsh light on the slow progress that has been made so far in switching to cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles that are powered by wind, solar and hydro electricity, and the limited contribution so far of environmentally sustainable biofuels, green hydrogen, biogas and other alternatives to petrol and diesel.

But the climate talks do offer some hope in yielding policies that can spur greater use of these alternatives against the backdrop of surging costs for fossil-based liquid fuels after the pandemic, and the ongoing pressure from populations for cleaner air quality.

Transport is now the world’s single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions and reducing the sector’s contribution to climate change will be a key requirement for countries to scale up emissions plans – known in climate talks jargon as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

But the NDCs that have been proposed so far are viewed by wide range of observers to be woefully inadequate in putting the world on a path to the Paris agreement’s commitments to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5C and 2C, with most major emitters unlikely to deliver a decisive clean energy transition in road transport, aviation, or marine until the late 2030s or 2040s.

Scale of the challenge

Transport accounts for around 16% of global greenhouse emissions, mainly because of its reliance on petrol, diesel, kerosene and other refined products that have been engrained in the world’s vehicles, aircraft and vessels for well over a century.

With oil production and refining central to the economies of all major emitting countries, alternatives such as biofuels have only made a small dent in overall fuel emissions since their adoption in the past couple of decades, although electromobility is fast becoming the preferred option among some policymakers in decarbonizing their vehicle fleets.

One of the key challenges of COP26 and the UN talks process will be to persuade poorer developing countries to scale up a transition to alternatives to fossil fuels, a shift that will require trillions of dollars of investment and financial transfers from rich countries through climate funds.

Moreover, developing countries will also likely need to draw up additional policy incentives – such as alternative fuel mandates and subtargets that are commonplace in Europe and the US.

Other mechanisms would include carbon trading and pricing that will narrow the price gap with carbon-based fuels, as well as clear fiscal incentives for alternatives to combustion-engined cars, analysts point out.

But until the late 2030s at least, it looks likely that most of the cars and trucks on the world’s roads will be using fossil fuels unless countries vastly scale up their overall climate commitments.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said over the weekend that persuading China, India and other major developing country emitters to switch from petrol and diesel cars is one of his key aims for the conference, and greater international co-operation on achieving this is a development that could emerge from the talks.

But a shift to electromobility and hydrogen in transport faces a huge challenge, particularly in developing countries, if power grids remain massively reliant on coal and to a lesser extent, natural gas.

“A reduction in carbon intensity of existing transport options combined with encouraging the switch to low- or zerocarbon forms of transport will be needed everywhere,” Climate Action Tracker said in an October 28 report, pointing out that to decarbonize transport effectively, many more journeys will need to avoid the use of cars altogether.

To ensure achievement of the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, the report said that 20–40% of the global light duty vehicle (LDV) fleet would need to be electric by 2030, reaching 85–100% by 2050, the report points out.

This means that new LDV sales must reach 100% well before 2050, while the sale of used EVs must be strongly supported in order to ensure a rapid availability of the technology to all drivers, the report added.

EU targets
The EU has sought to align its 2030 climate target to the greater ambition promised in Paris, with big reductions in transport emissions essential if the bloc is to deliver its promised 55% reduction in GHG emissions by the end of this decade.

The European Commission in July published over a dozen proposals to reduce emissions in all transport modes, with a revised Renewable Energy Directive aiming to reduce the carbon intensity of transport fuels by 13% by 2030 compared with 2020 levels, with subtargets for advanced biofuels and hydrogen.

But the proposals are subject to years of negotiations between member states and MEPs, and some fear that a shift to alternative fuels will be hindered by compromises with fossil fuel interests in some countries and sectors, and weak enforcement.

What about the UK?
Many of the UK’s climate overall targets were drawn up when the country was still a member of the EU, and are largely set through five-year budgets that are agreed in conjunction with its advisory body, the Climate Change Committee.

In the past few years since the COP26 host-country UK left the European bloc, the country’s government has made a slew of announcements in transport, including a ban on the sale of most new combustion-engined cars by 2030, and incentives for much greater use of low-carbon technologies and alternative fuels in road freight, marine and aviation.

But proponents of electromobility and hydrogen say the UK government and private sector needs to do much more in delivering the required infrastructure for low carbon vehicles, such as a faster and coordinated roll out of charging points and sufficient supplies of green energy for electrolysers.

US commitments
President Biden has highlighted several commitments in the run-up to COP26 that if enacted, will make a big reduction in the volume of oil consumed in the US, but this is likely to be a longer-term development.

The US wants half of vehicle sales to be electric by 2030 while also tightening pollution standards for cars and trucks, and the Build Back Better plan announced late last week – which is struggling to pass Congress – undertakes to make battery-operated cars affordable for most of its citizens.

As the Climate Action Tracker report points out, much greater incentives will be required to speed up a transition, such as incentives to scrap combustion engined-cars that currently are replaced only once every 12 years on average in the US.

The challenge for China
China, the world’s second biggest economy and now the world’s biggest auto market, has long been unwilling to commit to volume-based carbon targets in the past few decades, arguing that it should have further scope to catch up with OECD countries and lift larger swathes of its population out of poverty.

In recent weeks it did commit to climate neutrality by 2060, but that date is so far in the future that it is rendered largely meaningless in the eyes of many observers.

The absence of a downward carbon reduction target has translated into weak direct action on decarbonizing transport and only a very patchy implementation of ethanol and biodiesel blending at a provincial level.

Yet China is by far the world’s biggest producer and consumer of electric vehicles, and with the economies of scale that the country has in batteries, raw materials and electric vehicles themselves is seen as an important contributor to driving down costs of electromobility on a global scale.

The key challenge for China will be to cap and then reduce its reliance on coal in power generation so that the country’s grid can deliver big emissions cuts from business as usual through a switch to electric vehicles, an outcome that is viewed as even more remote as the country deals with power cuts and electricity shortages.

India's biofuel blending mandates
Unlike its developing country counterparts China and Saudi Arabia, the government of India has shunned climate net zero targets and instead has touted its scaled-up biofuels blending mandates – particularly in ethanol – as well as a thriving domestic electric vehicle sector.

In common with China, replacing large volumes of coal with green energy will be a major challenge, and although the massive scale up of wind and solar in some states is viewed as encouraging, much greater intervention and investment is seen as needed to decarbonize the grid.

Brazil and biofuels
Brazil, which was the first major country to adopt the use of biofuels on a large scale, has long heralded its contribution to reducing emissions in transport and unlike its BRICS group counterparts, has an absolute emissions target in place.

Yet the country is still a huge user of gasoline and diesel and has uptake of alternative fuels, its current carbon target viewed by green groups as inadequate, while electromobility uptake and incentives is among the lowest of large middle income countries.

Moreover, the country’s reliance on crop-based biofuels has shone a light on the environmental impact of land use change resulting from the cultivation of sugar cane and soybean, although Brazil’s government says there is no link - and points to its RenovaBio biofuels blending laws as the world’s biggest driver of advanced biofuels production.

This article, by John McGarrity, was originally published to energycensus.com on Monday November 1.