Transportation in a Post-Carbon World

Updated on March 14, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent almost half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Today, it’s estimated there are well over one billion motor vehicles in use around the world. All but a small number are powered by fossil fuels. The Post Carbon Institute says that 94 percent of all transportation in the world is fuelled by hydrocarbons that come from crude oil.

The institute predicts this is about to change, not slowly, but quickly and dramatically.

New York City's daily emissions of carbon in one-tonne spheres.
New York City's daily emissions of carbon in one-tonne spheres. | Source

Electric Vehicles

The Swedish car manufacturer Volvo says that all its models from 2019 onwards will be gasoline/electric hybrids or totally electric. Other car makers will follow.

As of 2016, there were only two million electric and hybrid passenger cars were on the road worldwide; that amounts to only 0.2% of all cars. But this number is set to increase. Forbes Magazine says that electric vehicles (EVs) will account for 65 percent of all light-duty vehicles (cars, pickups, etc.) by 2050. That forecast is for the United States.

Plug-ins outside San Francisco City Hall.
Plug-ins outside San Francisco City Hall. | Source

Norway is far ahead of all other countries in switching to electric vehicles. The country made rich by offshore oil has the highest per capita ownership of EVs. The 5.2 million Norwegians own 100,000 EVs. Canada, with a population of 36.3 million had 47,000 EVs on the road in December 2017.

In most Norwegian communities, people driving EVs can use bus lanes, get privileged parking, and use toll roads free of charge. As well, there are lots of recharging stations.

Yale Environment 360 notes that Norway began encouraging electric vehicle use “in the 1990s as an effort to cut pollution, congestion, and noise in urban centres; now its primary rationale is combating climate change.”

But, they are not stopping there. They are building fast charging stations and have set the goal of taking all fossil fuel-powered vehicles off the road by 2025.

Elon Musk is the chief executive of the electric vehicle company Tesla Motors in the United States. He has tweeted “What an amazingly awesome country. You guys rock!”

Railways

The Post Carbon Institute says that in the future most freight will have to be carried by rail. The fleets of diesel trucks so familiar on our highways today will be greatly reduced. Some will be powered by electricity, but mostly long-distance freight haulage will have to be switched to rail.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) obviously wants to paint a pretty picture of its sector. With that in mind, the AAR says “According to an independent study for the Federal Railroad Administration, railroads, on average, are four times more fuel efficient than trucks. Greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to fuel consumption. That means that moving freight by rail instead of truck reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent.”

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Given such numbers it makes sense to move freight between cities on rail. Local deliveries can then be made from distribution points by small electric trucks.

Passenger services will also need a revolutionary shake-up. Currently, Canada is way behind other countries, where trains travelling at 300 km/h are common. Canada is the only G7 country that does not have a high-speed train (HST) network.

For decades, governments have talked about building a high-speed corridor between Windsor, Ontario and Quebec City. But, all that happens is talk and then more talk. For true high-speed trains to operate they need high-quality dedicated track and that requires a huge investment of dollars.

Perhaps, Canada should not bother with conventional HSTs and jump to the next technology. This is the goal of Hyperloop One, a company based in Los Angeles and backed by the visionary Elon Musk. The company has identified the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor as an ideal testing ground for the technology. Currently, the rail travel time between the two cities is about five hours; a hyperloop system would cut this to 39 minutes.

The technology sends passenger pods (freight could be handled as well) through tubes from which most of the air pressure has been removed. The pods are lifted off the floor by magnetic “cushion” that ensures a friction-less ride. The pods are propelled by electricity.

The CBC comments “Vacuum sealing the tube by removing all, or most, of the air removes pesky obstacles like air resistance. This means that the pods inside the tube can reach and theoretically exceed speeds of 1,000 km/h.”

The 4,400 km between Vancouver and Toronto could be covered in four hours, with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions from aviation fuel.

Sebastian Gendron is the head of Toronto-based hyperloop company TransPod Inc. He told the CBC that prototype systems could be running by 2020. He adds “Usually construction takes around five to seven years. And by the time the line is built, we expect the first line to be operational by 2025 and 2030.”

Shipping

Bloomberg Business says that 90 percent of the world’s freight movement is carried by ships. At present, nearly all of the world’s ocean-going vessels are powered by hydrocarbon fuels. They are big polluters.

Here’s a report from The Guardian in 2009: “Confidential data from maritime industry insiders based on engine size and the quality of fuel typically used by ships and cars shows that just 15 of the world’s biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760 million cars. Low-grade ship bunker fuel (or fuel oil) has up to 2,000 times the sulphur content of diesel fuel used in U.S. and European automobiles.”

A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in America found that emissions from the world’s 90,000 cargo ships cause 60,000 deaths a year globally.

So, are we headed back to the age of sail? Numerous technologies are being developed to capture wind at sea. The rotor sail was invented in 1924 and discarded. However, the giant shipping company Maersk is reviving the technology for use on its tankers.

This ungainly looking creature is using rotor sails to assist with propulsion.
This ungainly looking creature is using rotor sails to assist with propulsion. | Source

A Danish shipbuilder is developing fibreglass sails that are shaped like aircraft wings, which makes them twice as efficient as traditional canvas sails. Another idea is to use a parasail similar to ones used by paragliders to assist with propulsion.

These are mostly hybrids that are aimed at cutting the use of polluting heavy oil rather than eliminating it altogether. The best prospect for getting rid of that oil completely seems to be battery power.

China already has an all-electric cargo vessel. It was launched in November 2017 and is used to carry coal along an inland waterway. The ship weighs 2,000 tonnes, which is small compared to many ocean-going container carriers that weigh 150,000 tonnes and up.

The limiting factor is distance travelled before a battery recharge is required. That Chinese coal carrier can only cover 80 km before a plug in is needed. Battery storage technology is improving all the time, but it has a long way to go before cargo ships will be able to cross oceans solely on battery power.

Airplanes

More than 100,000 flights take place each day. According to environmentalist Dr. Roger Tyers (University of Southampton) air travel “guzzles an eye-watering five million barrels” of kerosene every day. “Burning that fuel currently contributes around 2.5% to total carbon emissions, a proportion which could rise to 22 percent by 2050 as other sectors emit less.”

Currently, there is no practical way of moving eight million people each day by air other than by burning fossil fuels.

Source

Electricity? That seems to be decades away and may never be the answer. To get a large passenger aircraft into the air requires massive energy. Lithium-ion batteries can deliver a million joules of energy per kilogram of weight. Aviation fuel gives 43 million joules per kilogram. So, swapping batteries weighing 43 times more than kerosene to get the same energy is going to leave the aircraft grounded.

Hydrogen? As with electricity, this is a zero-emission fuel. But again, it’s not as energy dense as kerosene. Also, planes flying on hydrogen would leave behind a lot more water vapour to trap in heat, thereby increasing global warming.

Airships? Huge bags filled with lighter-than-air gasses such as helium or hydrogen provide lift. Propellers give forward movement and the ability to steer. However, airships are slow compared with modern jet aircraft.

Slower may be what happens in the future. Some experts are saying flying between continents will come to an end and ocean-going liners will make a comeback.

Or, how about less flying? A lot of business flying is unnecessary; meetings can be achieved just as effectively by video conferencing. And, “staycations” where people enjoy their holidays close to home are becoming popular.

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Bonus Factoids

In the 19th century, a transatlantic crossing took about six weeks. By the start of the 20th century, steamships had cut this to six days. Propeller planes took about 14 hours to cross the ocean. The first jets were introduced in the late 1950s and crossing times came down to six or seven hours. The Concorde supersonic jet entered service in 1976 with a flight time between London and Washington of three hours and 30 minutes.

According to Machine Design “If the world’s shipping fleet were a country, it would be the sixth leading emitter of greenhouse gases.”

Sources

  • “Transportation in the Post-Carbon World.” Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, Post-Carbon Institute, October 26, 2010.
  • “With Norway in Lead, Europe Set for Surge in Electric Vehicles.” Paul Hockenos, Yale Environment 360, February 6, 2017.
  • “Freight Railroads Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Association of American Railroads, April 2017.
  • “Toronto-Montreal Hyperloop Plan Could See Travel Time Cut to 39 Minutes.” The Canadian Press, September 17, 2017.
  • “Big Polluters: One Massive Container Ship Equals 50 Million Cars.” Paul Evans, Bloomberg, April 23, 2009.
  • “It’s Time to Wake up to the Devastating Impact Flying Has on the Environment.” Roger Tyers, The Conversation, January 11, 2017.

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