The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed our lives and its impact will be felt for a long time to come. The transport sector has also been hit hard by reduced demand for transport services as countries across the globe implement measures such as social distancing, quarantines and lockdowns, to deter the spread of COVID-19.
With a significant part of the globe experiencing some restrictions, the corresponding reduction in emissions from closing of offices, schools and fewer vehicles on roads has had an unintended positive effect on the environment—a reduction in air pollution. Some are calling the COVID-19 pandemic as the “largest scale experiment” ever into global air quality. Amidst the death and destruction, a so-called experiment has shown us what is possible if we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. For instance, data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite has shown a reduction in NO2 levels in cities, around the same time as lockdown measures have been initiated. A similar trend was observed in cities in the Northeast U.S. by the Aura satellite of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As is already known, NO2 is an air pollutant emitted primarily by motor vehicles and power plants.
In Asia, the unprecedented lockdown of 1.3 billion people in India in response to COVID-19 has cleaned up the air and slashed PM2.5 levels in cities such as Delhi (-46 per cent) and Mumbai (-43 per cent). Elsewhere, cities are seeing similar trends, Seoul and Wuhan, have experienced significant declines in PM2.5 after lockdowns.
While air quality gains will most likely be reversed once lockdown measures are lifted and traffic resumes, the improvement in air quality witnessed has laid bare the effect of transport on the environment, and renewed calls for transport decarbonization. How then can we build on these results and keep the momentum going?
Transport decarbonization will not happen overnight and there is no cure-all solution for it. It is very likely that in the short term we may see a greater dependence on personal vehicles for travel as people avoid public transport to maintain social distancing, which could see an uptick in transport emissions. Investments in public transport services have been a popular measure to lower the dependence on personal vehicles and to reduce GHG emissions. In a post pandemic world, however, such traditional measures may not be effective. Therefore, transport policy makers will need to take coordinated action on multiple fronts in a creative way.
One option is to leverage the power of smart transport technologies. This could be a possible solution for transport decarbonization while maintaining social distancing as it could trace all trips of personal vehicles to avoid congestion and operate on-demand transit services via smartphones. Connected and autonomous vehicles, which can be used for personal and public transport, also have a significant potential to cut down transport emissions by minimizing human interactions. The transport division of ESCAP has initiated relevant activities, including the promotion of smart transport technologies to mitigate GHG emissions and the development of regional roadmap for sustainable smart transport systems in the region.
Transitioning to electro-personal mobility could also deliver the reduction in emissions at scale necessary to decarbonize the transport sector while satisfying traveler’s need in a post pandemic world. Indeed, electro-personal mobility has zero direct tailpipe emissions, and their widespread adoption could clean up the air in cities and reduce dependence on conventional fuels. Personal mobility powered by electricity from renewable energy can further slash the carbon footprint of the transport sector. While sales of electric vehicles have picked up largely driven by government incentives, they still represent less than 1 per cent of the global vehicle fleet. This is far from the number required to deliver emission reductions for transport decarbonization.
On the regulatory front, work needs to be done on tightening emission and efficiency standards for vehicles to respond to the new realities in a post-pandemic era. Harmful emissions can be lowered to a minimum by putting in place and enforcing stricter vehicle emissions standards. World-class standards and regulations, including the use of renewable sources, for on-demand service vehicles, personal mobility, and connected and automated vehicles could lower GHG emissions while meeting the needs of commuters.
As the pandemic rages on and people anxiously await a return to normal, or the new normal, no one really knows what life will be like going forward or when social-distancing and other pandemic related measures will be lifted. The transport sector in particular will need to adapt and transform quickly with the rapidly evolving situation. Transport policy makers should not lose sight of the valuable lessons learnt from this crisis and should leave no stone unturned in prioritizing smart and green transport systems in support of sustainable development.