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ITF: Freight transport will replace passenger traffic as main CO2 source from surface transportation by 2050

In the face of shifting global trade patterns, international freight transport volumes will likely grow more than four-fold (factor 4.3) by 2050, according to the International Transport Forum at the OECD’s ITF Transport Outlook 2015. Average transport distance across all modes will increase 12%. As a result, CO2 emissions from freight transport will grow by 290% by 2050. Freight will replace passenger traffic as main source of CO2 emissions from surface transport. The world growth of surface freight volumes and related CO2 emissions will be driven by non‐OECD economies.

Asia, including China and India, will account for more than 50% of world surface freight transport by 2050 (compared with 35% today). The growth ranges between 330% and 630% for freight volumes and between 240% and 600% for the CO2 emissions. The difference between the highest and the lowest scenario for non‐OECD economies reflects uncertainties related to the direction these economies will take in terms of composition of production and the share of different types of freight transport.

Other findings of the report include:

  • The North Pacific route will surpass the North Atlantic as the world’s most busy trading corridor in terms of freight volume (in tonne-km), growing 100 percentage points faster than the North Atlantic. The Indian Ocean corridor will see large growth, with freight volume quadrupling.

  • Intra-African (+715%) and intra-Asian (+403%) freight volumes will see particularly strong growth to 2050. Road transport will dominate here due to lack of other modes.

  • The share of domestic transport of international freight flows accounts for 10% of trade-related international freight, but 30% of CO2 emissions. This is important, the report emphasizes: Domestic transport is shaped by national policies, less by international agreements.

  • Growth in global road and rail passenger travel to 2050 ranges from 120% to 230%, depending on future fuel prices and urban transport policies. This growth is driven by non‐OECD economies, where passenger volumes are projected to grow between 240% and 450%.

  • CO2 emissions from global surface passenger transport will grow by between 30% and 110%. The lowest growth scenario assumes high fuel prices and urban transport development that is mass transit/public transport‐oriented with slow expansion of road infrastructure. The highest growth occurs when fuel prices are low and urban transport development is private‐vehicle oriented, with strong road infrastructure expansion.

  • Public‐transport oriented urban policies would reduce CO2 emission growth by around 30% compared with the baseline scenario in Latin American and Chinese cities, and by almost 40% in Indian cities. Alignment of policies that contain sprawl, set higher fuel prices, and prioritise expansion of public transport infrastructure over urban road infrastructure can maintain current shares of public transport in Latin American and Indian cities, and significantly limit the reduction in China (with the public transport share in 2050 being twice what it would be in a baseline scenario in the three cases).

  • Same policy strategies do not necessarily achieve similar reductions in CO2 emissions and in negative health impacts. Integrated policies aiming at climate and health objectives work best. Promoting low sprawl and road development, and higher rates of public transit can achieve substantial climate change mitigation, and lower negative effects on health if implemented alongside more stringent controls for vehicle emissions (in particular for buses). In contexts with relevant participation of two‐wheelers, these can bring positive results in terms of CO2 reduction, congestion and affordable mobility, but adequate regulations for motorcycle emissions are critical to avoid severe public health impacts.

The foreseeable increase in global freight represents an unprecedented challenge for the world’s transport systems. Increasing capacity constraints in transport can act as a brake on economic growth. A quadrupling of freight emissions can seriously undermine climate change mitigation.

—ITF Secretary-General José Viegas

Viegas pointed to four action items that would help to avoid such a scenario:

  1. Improve capacity management: Many freight facilities are underutilized.

  2. Invest in missing links: More alternative and multi-modal connections increase efficiency.

  3. Prepare for mega-ships: Adapt infrastructure to more and bigger vessels, including the port-hinterland connections.

  4. Increase vehicle utilization: Improve load factors and reduce idle times across supply chains.

The International Transport Forum at the OECD is an intergovernmental organization with 54 member countries. It acts as a strategic think tank for transport policy and organises an Annual Summit of ministers. It is the only global body with a mandate for all transport modes.



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So aviation will probably grow fourfold by 2050. The solution that saves the planet of any pollution in this regard is to use liquid hydrogen as aviation fuel. This will take decades to develop and it will cost over 100 billion USD to make the first large mass producible commercial aircraft that operates on liquid hydrogen. It will therefore not happen unless legislation require Bowing and Airbus to make it happen.

Electric drones will also be big in transportation in a few years starting with Amazon. That is far less complicated and only few legal changes are needed. Moreover, Amazon and others have all the resources they need to make it happen.

Nick Lyons

@Henrik: This point of this article is that surface transport of freight (ships, trains, trucks) will dominate the increase in emissions. Increase in air transport is certainly an issue, but I don't think that's the main point here.

As far as using liquid H2 for air transport, I would think that synthetic liquid jet fuel is an easier way to go as a low carbon aviation fuel.


Air and Water transport seem to be the biggest challenges. Investment in current or foreseeable near-term technology can address most on-ground surface transport emission issues.


We have the answer to this problem...electric trains using overhead electric wires and panagraphs with storage batteries for the open spaces between wiring.

Synthetic fuel is expected to be and continue to be overly expensive because it uses almost as much energy to create it than it produces. In fact ethanol, the worst, runs about 1:1.7 ratio of energy in to potential energy out. Diesel is about 1:24, with all other fuel somewhere between. I think as I remember biodiesel is about 1:3. Reducing this cost could make air travel viable and less polluting; however, using Hydrogen in FCs to fuel electric aircraft would make it far less polluting and I believe more efficient; I just worry about the huge high pressure hydrogen fuel tanks it would require at altitude.

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The time horizon is 2050. That is enough time to transform to BEV propulsion for anything that move on wheels including trains. Tesla's 50Gwh factory by 2020 will come a long way and 30 years of additional cost cutting and technology improvements of batteries will do the rest of what is needed to go fully battery electric. The most difficult part is going to be aviation. I also think that synthetic fuels will be too expensive compared to just using hydrogen made from "excess" generation of renewable energy. As Lad mentions converting say renewable hydrogen and atmospheric CO2 into synthetic fuels is going to be expensive and inefficient. On the other hand handling liquid hydrogen in airplanes and ships is also expensive. For instance, hydrogen tanks will need to occupy at least half of the space of an airplane fuselage. That means much larger planes (and ships) for the same number of passengers or cargo space compared to one that operate on synthetic fuels. So I will not put my head on the block that in a hundred years airplanes and large ships are all powered by liquid hydrogen. I think the waist majority will be but that military airplanes and ships will stick with synthetic fuels. However, it will probably require 50 years at least to make such changes.


I think Lad has it - electric trains with wired power supply and batteries for short hops.
Maybe we'll see BEVs increase in popularity, assuming they can solve the range problem (fast charging, huge batteries, PHEVs or car swapping).
You don't have to replace ALL road travel with electric - if you get it to 60-80% you are in good shape.
With ships, you just slow down a bit (kites anyone ?) and use cleaner fuel.
A problem may be the current "cheap oil" era which will stall efficiency drives in many countries - on the other hand, people only expect it to last 3 years so that shouldn't stall too many programs (except fracking rigs).

As always, a new battery chemistry could change everything on land. (I can't see electric planes having much impact, except maybe hybrid electrics).

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Mahonj if all kinds of transportation are quadrupled by 2050 a 75% cut in emissions per mile traveled is going to leave the planet with exactly as much emissions and pollution per year as we have today and which is completely unsustainable for life as we know it. We need 100% elimination of all kinds of pollution in the long-term or this planet is doomed for anything apart perhaps for artificial life, such as, future sentient AI robots.

In ten tears we will have the first self-driving cars on the streets owned and operated primarily by internet companies like Uber and Lyft. That will be the catalyst that more than anything else will promote BEV propulsion as it will drop the capital cost of transporting people and goods considerably. The capital cost of the vehicles that are operated non-stop throughout the year and each time not being bigger than the job needed will be minimal. All that matters will be fuel cost and maintenance and here BEVs wins big time over any other alternative. But we need self-driving cars to seriously tip the advantage towards BEVs.


The key to reducing CO2 emissions from freight transport is in reducing distances travel. Think globally, buy locally.


Addition: When you go into a shop to buy, ask where it's made.


Electrified freight trains and delivery e-trucks will solve that potential problem.


Henrick, I agree that autonomous cars will be a vanguard into an emission free society. Vehicles are expensive to own, repair and operate. If we could take a $30K-70K vehicle and utilize it >60% of the time the cost of ownership would be significantly less in a way, compared to owning the same vehicle and using it only 4-8% of the time.

So if Lyft or Google or whomever comes out with an autonomous vehicle that will shuttle you where ever you want to go for a price cheaper than you could own and operate one yourself we will see a society that not only is very efficient, but one that has a lot less cars.
I would wager a system could take a third of the cars off the road. It could be as high as 2 thirds if routing and everything worked out well. Also, this could lead to greater carpooling opportunity. Fill a car up with 4 people on the way to work and just quadruple the efficiency, equivalently taking even more cars off the road.

Autonomous Trucking would also do wonders for efficiencies and safety.

Again, if you can utilize your expensive BEV >60% of the time, it pays off much sooner... so we could have $120K BEV SUVs and pay them off in their useful life.

I'd wager human error is the leading cause of all accidents.


Massive vehicle electrification + autonomous driving + car/vehicle intelligent sharing may all be around by 2025 or shortly thereafter?

If it comes (and it will) it will be a major revolution into the way we move people and goods. GHG emissions will be greatly reduced and so will be about 82% of the driver made accidents and reduced traffic jams will car sharing and automated alternative road/route selection by the autonomous drive systems.


Massive vehicle electrification + autonomous driving + car/vehicle intelligent sharing

There's something else that's coming: Localized manufacturing. Microfactories, 3D printing and robotic assembly have the potential to bring the means of production out of the centralized mega-factories and place them at the point of use. If that happens the only thing you'll need to transport is feedstock and if we get nanotech working the feedstock could be taken out of the air, water, and dirt around us.

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