An American (Transportation Researcher) in Paris: Report from “COP21” Global Climate Conference

I arrived in Paris to (ironically) unseasonably warm temperatures, and a strange mix: a festive Christmas-time atmosphere combined with a paramilitary police presence at almost every street corner, keeping watch over the throngs.

Paris 2015 COP21 logoAt the COP21 global climate conference being held at an old airport just north of the center city, delegates are also thronging, though the French have done an admirable job creating a facility that can handle the up to 40,000 expected without any cramped feeling. The massive venue of about 10 major halls can easily accommodate the crowds. It only took about 10 minutes to go through the initial registration process compared to the several hours it took at the Copenhagen COP of 2009. Since we arrived an hour early to be sure we had enough time, this efficiency was almost disappointing!

Meanwhile, as the climate meetings here move into day four, the transportation side of things is, so to speak, heating up.  In today’s major transport session, hosted by the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, Michelin and the Partnership on Sustainable Low-Carbon Transportation (SLoCaT), a range of announcements were made regarding transportation-related targets and commitments. They included a commitment by the aviation industry to cut CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050; the Global Fuel Economy Initiative announced it is most of the way toward its goal of having 100 countries commit to a 50% reduction in light-duty vehicle fuel consumption per kilometer (km) in 2050; and perhaps the most audacious of all: the declaration of the International Zero-Emission Vehicle Alliance (ZEV Alliance) to put 100 million electric vehicles (cars and SUVs) on the world’s roads by 2030. These are all interesting declarations since they involve both governments and non-government entities such as airlines and various manufacturing companies. All three of these cases (and most others today) are voluntary commitments that do not have legal standing. But as public commitments they can be tracked and monitored, and public pressure can and no doubt will be applied as needed to help see these through in the coming years.

Photograph of Lewis M. FultonThese types of commitments are meant to complement government commitments to cut CO2 emissions, many of which have already been announced. For example the Obama administration has made a commitment to cut U.S. CO2 emissions by 28% in 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The European Union has been even more ambitious, committing to a 40% reduction by 2030 but compared to 1990 levels, a tougher bar than the U.S. 2005 base year. China has not committed to outright reductions, but has committed to a peak in CO2 by no later than 2030, and a deep reduction in CO2 per unit gross domestic product (GDP) in this same time frame. Most countries have not set specific targets for transport, but many have indicated sets of measures for the transport sector that they intend to use to help achieve their overall targets. SLoCaT has published an interesting report that references these. It includes the following chart that breaks out measures by country income level and type of measures. The chart shows that biofuel-related measures, bus-related measures, and e-mobility-related measures are the top three measures that countries are referencing in their strategies.

Typology of Transport Mitigation Strategies in Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions

Typology of Transport Mitigation Strategies in Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions

One question is whether many (or any) of these commitments by major emitting countries will be strengthened over the remaining one and a half weeks of meetings. It seems that much of the negotiations are instead around mechanisms and systems whereby the developed countries will help finance the CO2 reductions of the developing (“non-Annex I”) countries. In the coming days, I will be digging deeper into the commitments and will try to better understand the role of transport in this broader context.

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