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Transport and sustainability
Transport and sustainability

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1 The transport energy challenge

Activity 1 (exploratory)

Before reading the rest of this section, make a list of what you consider to be the main issues and challenges concerning energy use in transport.

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Energy use in transport reflects a mix of concerns that varies over time and between countries. The list that you have just made will contain a number of issues and may well be influenced by what is happening at the time you are studying (e.g. if there has been a recent fuel price rise, change in vehicle taxation, an international incident affecting energy supplies or the launch of a low-carbon vehicle initiative).

It can be useful to think of transport energy issues and challenges as representing an interaction between three key groups of factors. Figure 1 shows these as three sides of a triangle: click on one of the three factors to reveal more about the concerns it involves.

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Source: based on Berridge, 2010, Figure 1-1
Figure 1 Transport's energy challenges
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In recent years our growing awareness of the environmental impacts of the use of energy has attracted considerable attention, but energy shortage and the security of energy supplies are longstanding powerful concerns. Recent manifestations (as of 2012) include concerns around:

  • the role of high oil prices in triggering the 2008–2010 recession
  • the implications for energy security in the wake of Russia's growing power through its oil and gas reserves
  • the rapidly growing energy demand in China and India
  • the uncertain political fallout of the 2011–2012 democracy protest movements among oil-producing countries in the Middle East.

Transport energy strategies and policies are all part of this overall picture and, from the global to the local scale, approaches and measures need to address all these issues.

Addressing the transport energy challenge

Overall energy for transport is becoming expensive, involving difficult, costly and (as illustrated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) potentially riskier situations. Thus economic drivers are set to make energy an increasingly prominent factor in twenty-first century geopolitics. This is typified by the USA's 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which describes itself as:

an Act to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government, and for other purposes.

Although it cites environmental factors as support issues, this policy's core desire is to reduce reliance by the USA on obtaining hydrocarbon fuels from politically unstable regions. This is what is emphasized in US politics; for example, George W. Bush's preference was to label hydrogen as the USA's 'freedom fuel' to symbolize its potential for energy security.

However, energy security and shortage can be less compatible with environmental requirements. The easiest and most secure way to obtain energy may not be to develop environmentally clean energy. This is typified by the burgeoning interest in and development of oil shale reserves. In environmental terms, oil shale is an extremely 'dirty' fuel; Brandt and Unnasch (2010) note that fuel-chain carbon dioxide emissions from oil shale derived liquid fuels are likely to be 25–75% higher than those from conventional liquid fuels, and the processing also requires major water use (see also Boak, 2007). But oil shale is abundant and obtained from politically secure areas (with the USA and China having large domestic reserves).

For sustainable transport, the strategic energy challenge is to achieve a low-carbon transport future that simultaneously ensures adequate and secure supplies of energy. Although it is crucial to cut transport's CO2 emissions, if an environmentally sustainable transport energy approach cannot also deliver economic, political and social sustainability then it is likely to be entirely sidelined.