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Blog / Transportation and Climate Change: We Can do Better

The modern world runs on pollutant-emitting transportation, from air travel to ocean shipping to automobiles. The millions and millions of vehicles in use right now are wreaking havoc on the environment. There are many ways to make transportation more sustainable and slow climate change—explore the possibilities.

Posted by Francis Zierer on March 12, 2021

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There are many ways to traverse the modern world. People drive cars, ride bicycles, buses, trains, airplanes, they walk, they run, they hail taxis, use rideshare apps like Lyft and Uber, ride horses, they board ferries...the list goes on. Especially if you live in a large city, there’s no shortage of ways to get around. People use public and private transportation for many reasons; commuting to work, for exercise, for leisure, to visit family far afield, to deliver products. Ours is an interconnected world reliant on roads, waterways, and airways to get from place to place and transport goods. There are three main types of transportation that really make modern life possible: the automobile, the airplane, and the ship. In America, in 2019, there were some 276 million registered automobiles, including both private family sedans and large goods-transporting trucks. Worldwide, in 2017, there were 25,368 active commercial aircraft, globally. By January 2020, there were about 56,000 merchant ships spread across the world’s oceans. It’s no surprise that in America alone, the number of registered automobiles vastly outweighs the number of globally active aircraft and ships. The automobile, especially in America, has long been an emblem of individual freedom, allowing owners to traverse the country’s great network of roads and highways. Americans love their cars. In 2016, estimates put the global tally of automobiles at about 1.32 billion. The 2019 American automobile count referenced above would make up about 20% of that number; Americans only make up about 4% of the world’s population. All these numbers, these millions of vehicles (automobiles especially) add up to one pressing issue: literal tons upon tons of pollutant emissions. The global aviation industry, by one estimate, will contribute 43 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions through 2050. The average passenger car emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year—multiply that by the 2016 global automobile estimate of 1.32 billion and you get a rough estimate of 6,072,000,000 metric tons of emissions every year. The actual number is surely much higher, but even that rough 6 billion is hard to comprehend—and that’s just automobiles, it doesn’t include aircraft and ship emissions. You don’t really need to try to wrap your head around the exact impact of modern petroleum vehicles on climate change; the point is that it’s absolutely massive. Even before a car owner racks up a year of emissions driving around every day, the gas they used has been extracted from the planet, it’s been processed and shipped to their local gas station, the factory that built the car has impacted the environment, and so on. It’s as simple as this: cars are a massive net negative for the Earth. That said, the situation doesn’t have to be so grim. There are solutions. In the past couple of decades, there’s been a movement towards hybrid and fully electric vehicles. Since so much of a car’s contribution to climate change comes from its’ fuel consumption, if you use an alternative fuel source, it won’t be so bad—that’s the logic, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. Even if your shiny new electric vehicle doesn’t use gas directly, there are two crucial issues: electricity production remains as a whole unsustainable, and the lithium batteries used in the manufacturing of electric vehicles are an environmental terror unto themselves. To make a lithium battery in the first place, you have to mine lithium, a process that is toxic both for the environment and the people who mine it. As wind farms, solar plants, and other sustainable electricity production methods become commonplace, electric vehicles do become a more sustainable option—and you don’t need to buy a fancy name-brand electric car. There are small electric vehicles that get the job done, especially if you live in a dense urban area. Buses, already a much more sustainable transportation method than single-passenger commuter cars, are part of the electric vehicle revolution. As of 2020, some 14% of China’s bus fleet was electric. These buses are becoming more common in America, as well. Besides electric vehicles, China is a world leader in rail (train) transport. They’ve built a vast high-speed railway network that nations like the United States would do well to take inspiration from. Not only is this a sustainable method of travel, but it’s also quick and even cheap. If you were to travel from New York to Chicago via Amtrak (one of the main rail travel purveyors in the States), it would take about 22 hours. A similar distance on China’s railway would take only 4.5 hours.

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In a sustainable transportation dream world, you could go city-to-city via high-speed rail and travel within cities via electric bus, intracity subway systems, small electric vehicles, or bicycle. Many people around their world own their own bicycles—a transport that’s extremely sustainable (at least after it’s been manufactured), as the only fuel required comes from the physical motion of the rider herself.

There are completely manual bicycles as well as electricity-aided bicycles, which are becoming increasingly popular. These modern vehicles can usually operate fully manually, but give the user the option of electric aid when necessary. This is a great boon for bicyclists who, say, wouldn’t be able to pedal up a steep hill on their own. When that electricity comes from a renewable source, it’s highly sustainable. Of course, not everyone has the money to purchase or the space to store a bicycle—but that’s a problem that’s already been solved.

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New York City has one of the most recognizable bike-share systems—the Citi Bike, an affordable city-wide network of bikes. Similar systems have sprung up in cities small and large across the nation, as well as in other cities around the world. These systems make the most sense in dense urban environments, but can easily be adapted for less dense and rural areas as well.

Sustainable transportation is urgently needed across the world, particularly in urban areas. Cars are a huge part of modern life and may never fully disappear—they’re necessary for people living in remote areas and for the overland transport of goods. But not everybody needs to drive their own car. There’s a future in reach where people across the world do most of their traveling by bike, by rail, by electric vehicle. We can achieve this better world.

If you’re passionate about building better transportation systems, ShareYourself is a great place to get started. Maybe you want to create bicycling infrastructure in your community. To proliferate the use of solar energy in your city. To convert your local busses from petroleum power to electric. Whatever your passion is, there are similarly-minded people already doing the work on ShareYourself. Join them. Get involved or start your own project. Let’s get the world moving sustainably and slow the onset of climate change—together.

#cliamtechange #transportation #weather
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