How Cities Can Cut Mobility Emissions To Meet Climate Goals

Cleansing power sources, incentivizing electric vehicles, and encouraging alternatives to personal cars are all key ingredients for sustainable cities.

sustainable mobility, climate change, electric vehicles, public transit, mass transit, bicycles

This article originally appeared in the World Economic Forum on June 23, 2023.

Cities are key players in the race to net zero. So far, more than 700 metros worldwide have committed to halving their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to comply with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But the clock is ticking and the challenge is significant.

For many cities worldwide, a top priority is reducing pollution from transport, which accounts for a third of urban greenhouse gas emissions and could grow. By 2050, 70% of people are expected to live in urban areas, increasing the demand for mobility services.

But the path to net zero varies greatly depending on location, infrastructure, demography, energy mix and other factors. Decreasing the use of personal cars and gasoline-powered vehicles will get many cities only to the halfway point, according to ongoing research by the Oliver Wyman Forum, which uses United Nations and other data to create city-specific models. Most places need to do much more.

There are three main ways cities can make progress on meeting their mobility carbon emissions goals: cleanse their power sources, incentivize electric vehicles (EVs) and encourage auto alternatives.

Clean up power sources

Some cities, such as Paris, need relatively minor tweaks to their mobility strategies to cross the finish line. Meanwhile, others, such as Dubai and Los Angeles, likely won’t make this deadline without major changes.

One reason Paris is at the forefront is its longstanding focus on electrification and the decarbonization of its energy grid. The city will still need to reduce its mobility emissions but it could succeed by accelerating the electrification of cars and buses, boosting the metro system’s share of the total mobility picture (known as “modal share”) and incentivizing the use of shared transportation – especially mopeds and bikes.

In contrast, Berlin doesn’t yet enjoy the full benefit of its electric cars because fossil fuels power its energy grid. Switching to a decarbonized grid could significantly shrink the city’s carbon footprint. Berlin also needs to reduce personal autos’ modal share to 45% or less from the current 57%. It can get there by increasing public transit, ride-hailing, walking and cycling.

Increase electrification

Reducing personal auto use and encouraging drivers to switch to electric vehicles is especially important for car-centric cities like Los Angeles and Dubai, which rely heavily on autos and less on mass transit.

The California city is not on track to reach its 1.5 Celsius target for mobility emissions; to get there, it would need to reduce mobility emissions by an additional 54% by 2030. The biggest challenge is replacing gas-powered vehicles with EVs. In 2022, more than 92% of the distance travelled in Los Angeles was by car and nearly 90% of those vehicles used gas or diesel fuel. The city must also boost bus ridership by incentivizing fares and offering more convenient service.

Dubai faces a similar challenge. More than 80% of the distance travelled last year was by auto. And mobility demand is expected to increase by 27% by 2030, pushing emissions 19% higher. In all, the city will need to reduce emissions by an additional 56% to meet its target, which will require a significant reduction in gas-powered cars and increased EV adoption. At the same time, it should continue to develop its metro system to boost ridership.

Cities eager to encourage EV use can learn from Oslo, which many consider the EV capital of the world. It used a multi-pronged approach to encourage adoption, offering monetary incentives, investing heavily in charging infrastructure and providing lower road tolls and taxes, free parking schemes and access to bus lanes for EV drivers. The strategy is working: Oslo’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 30% since 2009 and it aims to reduce its carbon emissions to almost zero by 2030.

Encourage alternatives to autos

Electrifying cars will not be enough on its own. Cities also need to do much more to encourage people to walk, bike or take public transit by expanding infrastructure and limiting car traffic.

Many are trying to build on projects begun during the pandemic. Paris, for example, massively expanded its bike lanes to discourage car use in the city centre. It has also focused on creating a “15-minute city,” allowing residents to reach necessary amenities within a brisk walk. Even so, it will need to cut an additional 38% of its mobility emissions to meet its goal, likely through getting people to walk or bike or to use mass transit or shared modalities such as mopeds.

Munich is setting an example for others on this path. It aims to have a mobility network that is carbon neutral by 2035 and already has extensive bikeways and a robust, affordable and multimodal public transit system. Munich plans to install up to 200 mobility hubs, where riders can select shared bicycles, cars and scooters conveniently located near transit stations.

As 2030 approaches, many cities are committed to reducing their mobility emissions. The race is on but we have the technology – and a clear roadmap – to win.