Mobility drive

To survive the climate challenge the automotive industry needs to cover all forms of transport, says Achim Steiner

Passenger cars and vans are responsible for around half the EU’s transport emissions. Gradual improvements in fuel efficiency have been overwhelmed by the increase in the number of vehicles and by other factors such as congestion.

Pressures on car makers to rise to the climate change challenge will not be going away. And if the auto-industry cannot find answers itself, they will be imposed either by governments or consumer choice.

In a climate-constrained world where the price of carbon will become a deciding and economically central feature, car companies that adopt creative and high technology strategies are the ones likely to survive and thrive.

By some estimates new technologies can cut fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of two in road transport without compromising performance.

Options include advanced internal combustion engines (ICEs) the hybrid family, bio-ethanol with flexfuel vehicles and alternative lower carbon content fuels.

Looking a little further ahead into the future, options could include even more efficient ICEs, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles powered by new generation batteries, second generation biofuels as well as synthetic fuels, fuel cell and hydrogen-powered systems.

European engineering and technical know-how can either lead these developments or be overwhelmed by them.

But the real prize is to integrate private transport with the wider mobility agenda — in delivering not a car culture but a mobility one in which the love affair is getting from point A to point B in the fastest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly manner.

One route might be to redefine the business model — some oil companies have transformed themselves into energy companies, investing not only in oil but also in renewables including wind and solar power. Others are entering the energy efficiency and appliances markets.

Could a similar model be developed for car manufacturers? Could they become transport companies with business interests or partnerships with rail and coach makers, alternative fuel developers and even bus, taxi, motorcycle, scooter and perhaps even cycle manufacturers?

How do car makers relate to road developers? Can they contribute financially, technologically or intellectually to the need to decongest towns and cities and encourage greater and more seamless integration between all modes of transport, from light rail to walking?

Would their political and social capital rise and could they legitimately offset some of their emissions linked with cars via wider and greener mobility schemes in developed, but also developing, economies?

And how does the industry relate to such issues as telecommuting and the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) — not just in terms of smart engine management, but the wider social possibilities?

According to a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) supported report, Global E-Sustainability Initiative and the Climate Group, ICT could deliver annual man-made global emission reductions of 15 per cent by 2020. Energy efficiency savings to global businesses of more than €500bn (£400bn) could be realised.

Perhaps it is time to explore moving forward on some of these wider fronts. The world is changing. Climate change is a threat not only to the future of humanity, but also to those businesses and industries that fail to evolve and see the wider agendas.

Transport and companies manufacturing ‘mobility’ products will come under increasing scrutiny and pressure. Those that lead can shape their future of humanity’s footprint — heavy and harmful or light and sustainable.

Edited extracts of a speech given at the recent Magdeburg Mobility Conference by Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN’s Environment Programme.