It will take more than Teslas to make global transport sustainable for all

  • Mobility systems are busy again, and businesses should grasp this moment to make transport safer, cleaner and more efficient for all.
  • Tackling inequality and climate change in the transport sector is a business opportunity.
  • By increasing access to safe zero-emission mobility in low-income countries, companies can gain competitiveness and help achieve global climate goals.
  • There are promising examples of businesses taking sustainable and equitable mobility action.
Published: 25 May 2022
Author: Thomas Deloison
Type: Insight

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 and the world "stopped" for a moment, the transport sector experienced some of the most dramatic effects. Global road transport activity was cut in half, and public transit ridership dropped by 50 to 90% in some major metropolitan areas.

Now streets are bustling again, and buses, trams and metros are crowded. After the pandemic-led recession over the last two years, cities are vibrating with a palpable yearning to go back to the people and places we love. Mobility companies should seize this as an opportunity to reboot, but they shouldn't be racing back to how things were. Business can and must lead the change to ensure that there is not a "return to normal", but a sustainable and more equitable future.

The brief reduction in emissions and air pollution during the pandemic, partly induced by the cutback in mobility, didn't linger. In 2021, global carbon emissions rebounded to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest level in history.

Today, road transport accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. With a rapidly growing global population, particularly in developing countries, the demand for mobility will rise. By 2050, the total transport activity worldwide will more than double compared to  2015 levels. The challenge ahead lies in addressing this growing demand without deteriorating air quality, congestion and road safety.

Tackling inequality and decarbonization must go hand in hand: what does this mean?

While the transformation towards zero-emission transport technologies is accelerating, predominantly in developed countries, the change isn't happening at the pace and scale needed to meet global climate targets. Companies must commit to zero-emission fleets and start directing investments in zero-emission and safety technologies to low-income countries.

Tackling inequality and climate change by increasing access to low-carbon innovations isn't only about solidarity with people and the planet. It is also a business opportunity. By deploying, adapting and scaling pioneering transport technology in emerging economies, companies can gain awareness and credibility in new markets and expand their business solutions to marginalized communities. The automotive industry has done it before. In the early 20th century, Henry Ford transformed the car from a luxury commodity into a product affordable to the masses. Making the automobile accessible to millions of Americans, Ford unlocked a demand for products and services that previously didn't exist, such as gas stations and repair shops.

Another potential opportunity resides in helping markets that aren't bound by legacy technological structures to leapfrog development stages, through investments into innovative practices, infrastructure and skills necessary to absorb new technologies. One of the most prominent leapfrogging examples is the mobile revolution, which brought an explosion of mobile payment systems and apps to developing countries that never established a landline infrastructure or retail banking system. A similar pattern could be possible in mobility as well. Countries with the fastest-growing populations and with less dependence on legacy infrastructure could leapfrog certain stages and become a global hotspot for zero-emission mobility.

How are businesses taking action?

The mobility sector is poised for equity action, with the theme of this year's International Transport Forum Summit, the world's top transport policy event, being "Transport for inclusive societies." Some key takeaways for business from this year’s summit were that companies need to ensure inclusive planning and design, and find joint approaches for innovative financing models to mitigate investment risks and make technology available for everyone. 

The high purchase price is still one of the main obstacles to wider consumer adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). One company that is a leader in democratizing EVs is Tata Motors, India's biggest automaker. Moving into EV manufacturing, Tata knew that they had to make their models affordable to succeed in the price-conscious local market. Today, their model Tata Tigor EV is one of India's most affordable and best-selling electric cars. The company's ambition to make electric cars mainstream is further cemented by their plan to launch 10 new EV models by 2026 and invest USD $2 billion in the technology, infrastructure and vehicle architecture needed to increase the sales of electric cars.

Other examples of businesses taking action are Michelin and Total Energies, who have joined forces through their corporate foundations to improve road safety globally. Every year, 1.35 million people lose their lives in road crashes, 93% of which occur in developing countries. As part of their commitment to making the world's roads safer, Michelin and Total Energies have developed VIA, an education program for young students that raises awareness and highlights best practices around road safety. The program has been rolled out in schools across Africa, Asia and Europe, including countries such as Cameroon, India and Romania. VIA applies an innovative approach to learning, using active, emotional and creative methods to focus on the value of life and how to behave safely in traffic. All activities in the learning program are designed to be accessible in both high- and low-tech school settings.

To find the business case for addressing inequality in the transport sector, companies sometimes need to look beyond short-term financial gains. Creating shared prosperity is about building a world where businesses can succeed in the long term. Tackling inequality helps companies secure license to operate, mitigate systemic risks and increase innovation. Business can look to existing examples of sustainable innovation in the mobility sector to guide their future action.

Time to act

Inequality is one of the most pressing challenges facing our societies today, next to climate change and nature loss. The unequal access to resources and health services has prolonged the COVID-19 pandemic, made it deadlier and more detrimental to people's livelihoods. Similarly, we know that the climate crisis will hit the world's most vulnerable populations the hardest. That's why businesses must prioritize building resilience in underserved regions. While the pandemic still lingers and the war in Ukraine causes new shocks and supply chain insecurities, it's high time for business to act for an inclusive global recovery.

Recognizing the urgency for action and the responsibility that the private sector has, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) launched the Business Commission to Tackle Inequality. This initiative mobilizes the business community to tackle inequality and generate shared prosperity for all. WBCSD's transport-specific efforts are positioned within the Transport & Mobility Pathway, in which we help our members reach their climate, nature and equity goals through action-oriented projects and collective advocacy focused on decarbonization, data-driven solutions and circularity in the automotive industry, with inclusivity and safety gaining momentum as a new working area.

Businesses should seize the vigorous strive to build back. But to truly do it better, we must reconcile reducing carbon emissions with enabling developing economies to access the solutions for the transitions. For the transport sector, this means making safe zero-emissions vehicles and infrastructure affordable and accessible. It means collaborating with other companies and policymakers, and finding the right financing mechanisms for fueling technological innovation in local mobility systems. And ultimately, it means connecting climate and equity action to secure safe, decarbonized and environmentally sustainable transport that leaves no one behind.

If you are interested in our work on safety and equity in mobility and wish to join the conversation, please get in touch with Thomas Deloison.

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