Climate Feature: Climate Targets and the Transportation Sector

Commentary / 1st Quarter 2023

Climate Feature: Climate Targets and the Transportation Sector

by Dinda Mundakir

March 21, 2023

The next direction

Our modern industrial society has been deeply shaped by advances in the transportation sector. Settlements of old that sprouted along ports and waterways have shifted to develop alongside coast-to-coast arterial roads and railway stations; some have developed close to major transport infrastructure such as airports. Asia experienced a globalised industry boom since the 1970s1 with the rise of the jet era, where multinational corporations and international trade intensified, delocalising operations and mobilising labour forces across new frontiers.2 Concurrently, the rise of private vehicle ownership has dictated the scale and fibre of built environments up to this day.

There are irreversible environmental and social damages due to vehicle pollution, reliance on fossil fuels, and even the sourcing of raw materials for new innovations. Transport comprises nearly a quarter of all direct CO2 emissions,5 and as the world began to escalate post-pandemic activity in 2021, emissions from the transport sector soared by 8 per cent compared to pandemic levels, totalling 7.7 gigatonnes.6

This massive number is second only to the entire carbon emissions of China, and is more than triple India’s. To meet 2030 carbon targets that are necessary to keep climate change in check, transport needs to dramatically reduce its emissions by 20 per cent, to less than 6 gigatonnes within the next seven years.7

By growing too big and too fast, transportation’s problems have far outweighed its merits. Transportation is, by definition, movement—but which direction should it take?

Global initiatives

Countries with transport targets in NDCs as of 15 September 2022 (Non-GHG Targets refer to any targets other than explicit reduction of transport GHG emissions)

To advance low-carbon transport, global stakeholders that convened at COP27 last November launched initiatives such as Low Carbon Transport for Urban Sustainability (LOTUS) and Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation (SURGe).

The leaders of these initiatives will make use of important moments in the transport community, such as events and conferences, to accelerate work and develop the proposed interventions under each thematic area further. However, more concrete roadmaps are yet to be seen, and their implementation is another question altogether.

Perhaps the paradox of large-scale action is that in trying to coordinate too many moving parts, too little ends up being done—as one report of COP27 placed it: “The elephant in the room is the wealth of talk and the dearth of action.”10

READ MORE: Six Actions to Enable Walking, Cycling and Public Transport for People and Planet

Current actions

One such country in Asia that has taken consistent action to strengthen its public transport is Singapore, where emissions of the sector reportedly peaked in 2016 at 7.7 million tonnes and has been gradually declining since.12 The government is targeting to further slash this amount by 80 per cent come 2050, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive targets in the region.

Transport emissions in Singapore by mode (in percentages)

This transport strategy may well be on track for Singapore, but it does not mean that the same solutions can be applied to other countries. Transportation requirements will vary according to specific demographics and geography, differing between mainland/landlocked and archipelagic countries.

In Southeast Asia, only Brunei explicitly included transportation (specifically to electrify land transport) as part of their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs),19 while other countries have also declared targets and roadmaps to reduce emissions and phase out fossil fuels, although not limited to transportation. Thailand is developing a roadmap to manufacture 30 per cent of all vehicles to be electric by 2030, rising to 50 per cent by 2035 and Indonesia is seeking to escalate the use of alternative fuels with lower carbon emissions in 2023, such as B40 biodiesel, a 40:60 mixture of crude palm oil and diesel fuel.

READ MORE: Electrification is Not a Panacea

A turning point?

Although NDCs are envisioned under business-as-usual scenarios, transportation may be reaching what is described as an inflection point.22 This presents an opportune time to rethink the sector in terms of the climate emergency, and more broadly, to treat transport—a means to connect—as one and the same entity as the built environment.

“How we live and how we get around are not two separate issues; they are two sides of the same coin, the same thing in different languages”, wrote Lloyd Alter in Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle. “What we design and build determines how we get around (and vice versa) and you cannot separate the two. They are all built environment emissions, and we have to deal with them together.”23

Following this viewpoint, the next Green step for transportation should not just be high-tech vehicular innovations, but also solutions that are quite literally closer to home.

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8 Press Release: The Role of Public Transport Increases in COP27 Initiatives, UITP Press Office, 17 November 2022


10 SLOCAT (2022), COP27 Outcomes for Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport.




14 Lawrence, Martha and Richard Bullock. 2022. The Role of Rail in Decarbonizing Transport in Developing Countries. Mobility and Transport Connectivity Series. © World Bank.

15 ITF (2022), “ITF Southeast Asia Transport Outlook”, International Transport Forum Policy Papers, No. 103, OECD Publishing, Paris.

16 Ibid.

17 Deepak Adhikari (2021), “Hydropower Development in Nepal”


19 UNFCCC (2020), Brunei Darussalam Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)

20 Electrification of the Transport System (2017), Directorate-General for Research and Innovation: Smart, Green and Integrated Transport, European Union


22 Urban transportation at an inflection point: An analysis of potential influencing factors



25 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2022), “Strengthening the resilience of urban communities: Our way forward”

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