Jack Short, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum: "E-mobility might be a useful concept for urban mobility, while inter-urban travel may be better served by hybrid or biofuel vehicles"

In this exclusive interview with Renewable Energy Magazine, Jack Short, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum (ITF), discusses the challenges faced by the global transport sector as it looks to grow in a sustainable manner, and how renewable energies and energy efficiency will contribute to achieving this goal.

While progress has been made in recent years to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of transport activity, more remains to be done. According to research performed by the International Transport Forum (ITF) ( in 2007, transport carbon dioxide emissions accounted for more than 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Subsequent research by the ITF/OECD’s Joint Transport Research Centre (Transport Outlook 2010) shows that growing population, increasing urbanisation and higher incomes will boost demand for transport further and put great pressure on transport systems around the globe. According to the ITF study, capacity will be hard pressed to expand as rapidly as demand and emissions will rise. Transport systems will therefore be required to operate much more efficiently and look for new energy solutions in the future if they are to make a positive contribution to curbing emissions.

The International Transport Forum is a strategic think tank for the transport sector. Each year, it brings together Ministers from over 50 countries, along with leading decision-makers and players from the private sector, civil society and research, to address transport issues of strategic importance. An intergovernmental organisation linked to the OECD, the Forum's goal is to help shape the transport policy agenda, and ensure that it contributes to economic growth, environmental protection, social inclusion and the preservation of human life and wellbeing.

Jack Short is the Secretary General of the International Transport Forum, which is the ‘successor’ to the ECMT which acted for many years as a "Think Tank" for Transport Ministries. He is also the Director of the Joint OECD/ITF Transport Research Centre, which was set up in 2004. Mr. Short joined the ECMT in 1984 and was Deputy Secretary General from 1993 to 2001. Previously, he worked for the Ministries of Transport and Finance in Ireland and in Transport Research. Ministers appointed him in 2006 to lead the major reform to transform the ECMT into the International Transport Forum which has a broader scope and new mandates. The Forum, which was formally launched by Ministers in 2007, is held every year in Leipzig, Germany (since 2008).

Interview date: June, 2010

Interviewer: Toby Price

To start off, could you give our readers a brief overview of the state of play of the world’s transport sector in terms of energy efficiency, renewable energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions? In other words, how far down the road to a sustainable future is the industry already?

The transport sector today is 97 per cent dependent on oil. There has been considerable progress in improving fuel efficiency in all modes over the last 20 years. And the potential for further efficiency improvement in standard internal combustion engines is considerable. For cars, we can achieve 50% reduction fuel use by 2030 and that would enable us to at least stabilize their carbon dioxide emissions. But higher incomes, population growth and urbanisation in emerging economies like India and China mean that car usage may triple by 2050, even if car usage levels off in developed countries. But it is not the developing world that needs to limit but the developed ones. Transport is responsible for almost a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use and its share is growing.

In a recent press release, the ITF said that “demand management in transport can help to reduce emissions”, but that “ITF experts do not see it as a primary tool for curbing emission growth”. What does demand management actually entail and to what extent can it help?

People make choices about transportation primarily based on cost and on availability. But the current price structures and supply patterns are such that they cause excessive congestion and local air pollution. Prices that take account of the costs caused by these problems could substantially reduce traffic in some places and during certain times. But on a global level this is not enough to add up to significant emissions reductions. So, better demand management can do a lot of good in reducing congestion and its side effects. But it will not work miracles in our struggle to halt climate change.

In the view of ITF researchers, optimising fuel economy needs to be the “core strategy” for transport-related emissions reduction over the next two decades. How is the industry looking to boost its energy efficiency?

Improving fuel efficiency in conventional cars is not rocket science. The technology is there, tried and tested. But it is still used to make cars faster and more powerful, rather than more fuel efficient. And fluctuating fuel prices make manufacturers wary of investing in efficient engines unless they are sure of selling cars that are equipped with them. The automotive industry will push ahead more quickly if policy can provide clear standards that reduce the risk for industry to invest in products that won’t be marketable.

The ITF also stresses that, aside from these steps, the energy base of transport needs to be transformed if renewed growth of emissions after 2050 is to be avoided. Across the industry, how is this energy base changing and to what extent are renewable energies contributing to this sea change?

There is a great deal of research under way into new technologies and renewables. Some carmakers believe very firmly in electric vehicles, others do not. A few years ago, biofuels were seen as the cure-all, but nowadays a more balanced approach seems to be the consensus with second and later generation biofuels, grown sustainably, providing a small but significant share of the market. The expectation of a massive switch to electricity needs also to be tempered. It is a wrong preconception that one monopoly energy source for transport, namely oil, will be superseded by another such monopoly. To me, the transport system of the future seems much more likely to draw on a variety of fuel types and vehicle technologies. E-mobility might be a useful concept for urban mobility, while inter-urban travel may be better served by hybrid or biofuel vehicles.

Looking at specific modes of transport now, according to the UN’s International Maritime Organisation, commercial shipping emitted 3% of the world’s carbon in 2007, which could rise to 18% by 2050 as global trade increases and fleets expand. What is the shipping sector doing to ensure this does not happen?

Emissions from shipping exceeded those from aviation in 2007, according to our figures. On the other hand, shipping was particularly hard hit by the global economic crisis. The crisis led to a notable drop in transport emissions, simply because there was less trade. Nevertheless, the volume of global shipping should equally triple by 2050, so the industry will have to be much more proactive about changing its carbon footprint. And there are some innovative ideas around, like the giant hi-tech kites that use wind energy to reduce freighters’ energy consumption. The German manufacturer claims that freighters equipped with theses “skysails”, as they call them, may save up to 30 per cent fuel. But shipping will need to do more.

The ITF estimates that volumes of air passengers will triple between now and 2050, making it is the fastest growing transport mode. While this figure is substantially more conservative than that given by the airline industry, it is still highly significant considering that the aviation industry accounts for around 3-5% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. Many commercial airlines (Virgin, KLM, Air New Zealand to name but a few) are currently testing biofuels for commercial flights. Do you believe biofuels can truly contribute to curbing the aviation industry’s emissions, especially in light of concerns about the environmental and social feasibility of cultivating biofuel feedstocks on a large-scale?

It’s a good thing that the airline industry is addressing the problem, given its share in global emissions and the growth rates for air travel. But it’s also clear that the airlines’ biofuels experiments are only the very beginning. The sustainability and cost problems need to be solved. Yet there is now a new move to examine biofuels. As jet fuel becomes more expensive, interest in biofuels will increase.

What other measures are the aviation sector taking with regard to energy efficiency and the use of renewables to bring down emissions in the future? With this action in mind, do you consider the airline industry can reduce its carbon footprint sufficiently to guarantee its future over the next century?

There are a number of things that can be done that are not driven by technology, but by policy. For instance, better airspace management and optimal use of airport capacity can help lower the emissions footprint of air travel. There is considerable scope for improvement on both issues - allowing planes to take more direct routes, for example. Yet it is true that such gains will be swamped by growth of air travel, which we expect to triple by 2050. So there needs to be a switch of the energy base in aviation, too. At this stage, the industry target to stabilise total emission in 2020 and make big reductions after that seems too optimistic.

Turning to road transport, the ITF suggests that stabilising emissions from light-duty vehicles alone will require fuel economy to roughly double. Car emissions for example would have to attain 90 g/km in 2050 as a global average. How can this be achieved?

Increasing fuel efficiency is key. The Global Fuel Efficiency Initiative, of which the International Transport Forum is a member, has proposed an action plan that comprises fuel economy and carbon dioxide emissions standards; vehicle taxes and incentives, fuel taxes, a world standard eco-test, labelling, and international policy alignment. This is all feasible.

Is the electric vehicle only a stopgap solution or is it a true long-term solution to helping reduce the private transport sector’s impact on the environment? What about the limited raw materials available for producing batteries for example?

The electric car is not even a good stopgap, if the electricity it consumes is not produced in a sustainable way. Or indeed, if the batteries needed have a net negative impact on the environment. It is true that manufacturers tend to play down the raw material constraints on e-mobility, for example regarding the lifetime of batteries. There are ample battery resources for at least the next fifty years, but in transport terms, that is not a very long time. So e-mobility could in fact turn out to have an element of a stop-gap solution.

High-speed rail use is on the rise. Taking the entire energy chain into account (i.e. emissions from power plants generating the electricity to power high-speed trains), is this really positive news in terms of emissions?

No it is not. Especially if emissions during the construction phase are taken into account, and if the much lower energy need of conventional rail is taken as a point of comparison.

In your words, “innovation is the key”. One significant area of innovation is the use of hydrogen as a transport fuel. Do you consider this basic element has a future role in making transport cleaner?

As I said, it is likely that transport will come to rely on a mix of energy sources, rather than on one monopoly source. Hydrogen certainly has great appeal, but it also has proved a difficult technology. So the simple, if somewhat unsatisfactory, answer to your question is: We don’t yet know.

Finally, you have been quoted as saying that policy support for the lengthy process of greening the transport industry must start now. The ITF’s role is to inform transport and industry ministers about the industry’s needs. What specific policy measures are you calling for with regarding to boosting energy efficiency and the role of renewable energies in the transport sector?

We want to help governments to establish clear and credible long term policies for creating a favourable climate for investing in innovative transport solutions that make mobility sustainable, safer and accessible for all - around the globe.

For additional information:

International Transport Forum

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