Is traffic killing the planet?

Climate Week may be over, but the climate crisis is still going on. We’re taking a look at climate change from different perspectives. This week’s topic: If cars are getting more efficient, why is transportation still one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions?

Of a total of 906.6 tonnes of CO2 emissions in Germany in 2017, 166 million tonnes were attributed to road traffic. New technologies have made land transportation much more environmentally friendly over the past 20 years. The German Federal Environment Agency, for example, reports that specific emissions of sulphur oxide were reduced by around 98 percent between 1995 and 2017 as a result of stricter fuel quality regulations. Emissions of nitrogen oxides fell by 56 percent, particulate emissions by 79 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent. Because of this, specific emissions of certain pollutants, i.e. emissions per kilometre, have actually been reduced.

While in Germany, greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 27.5 percent between 1990 and 2017, the bottom line is that nothing has changed in the mobility sector. On the contrary, emissions caused by motor vehicles are actually getting worse. But why?

There are several reasons for this. All the technical improvements and technological progress cannot keep pace with the growth in traffic. Between 1991 and 2017, motorised private transport increased by 33 percent. In addition, larger, more powerful cars are increasingly being driven. Since 2014 alone, the share of SUVs in new registrations has more than doubled, from 9.8 percent to 20.3 percent (forecast for 2019). The total number of vehicles is also growing. Every year, over 3,000,000 new cars are registered in Germany. Since 2014, we have also been far above this figure every year. In 2018, there were already around 3,400,000 passenger cars. A similar development is also emerging for motorcycles and trucks.

At the same time, these vehicles are not being used very efficiently. Of the five seats, only 1.46 seats are used on average in Germany.

As a result, specific CO2 emissions have fallen by 18 percent, but total traffic emissions have risen by as much as 0.5 percent since 1995.

The impact of traffic on the climate is difficult to reduce with technological progress alone. In addition to more efficient engines and new drive systems, we need to rethink our transportation habits. That means: where possible, we should use more public transport services, ride more bicycles, scooters or e-bikes, share journeys, and also question whether our own car is really the best means of transport for certain journeys. Changing our behaviour is the greatest step we can take in the fight against climate change.

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