Transport and climate change: We need the transport sector to jump on the ride to a net-zero, just and sustainable future

Morning traffic on the N2 towards uMhlanga, Durban. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Morning traffic on the N2 towards uMhlanga, Durban. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Oct 11, 2023


By Mbulaheni Mbodi

Transport Month is marked in October in South Africa with the Department of Transport and its entities using the attention on its mandate to showcase transport services in aviation, maritime, commuter transport and roads as well as to advance road safety initiatives and create awareness of the economic benefits of the sector – it is for a good cause.

But maybe we should start by renaming it sustainable mobility month and use that to reimagine our future transport sector that is decarbonised while managing demand and improving the efficiency, reliability and affordability of transport.

South Africa as a developing country continues to experience rapid urbanisation, intensifying the need for access to reliable transport systems and also increasing the use of private vehicles, as demand for transport is derived from other economic activities associated with major urbanisation trends.

As a developing country, our transport sector faces a broad range of challenges, including the carbon intensity of the sector and a complex set of structural inefficiencies, inhibiting the sector’s ability to serve as an enabler of economic growth and industrial development.

Globally, the transport sector is one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, with most transport today running off internal combustion engines powered by fossil fuels. The sector is responsible for about one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and the third largest emitting sector in the country, with almost 55 million tons of CO₂ emissions contributing more than 10% to the country’s national gross emissions.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector presents difficult challenges due in part to the immense scale of this sector of our economy, with motor vehicles as the major form of transportation almost solely dependent on liquid fuels – principally petroleum products.

On the other side, climate change impacts can disrupt transport networks, stress infrastructure, and pose safety risks to people.

Notwithstanding growing demand for transport, the sector has a critical role to play in achieving South Africa’s carbon emission reduction targets and the government will need to focus resources available to meet these ambitious targets.

While there may be a number of options for reducing carbon emissions in the transport sector by increasing fuel efficiency, ultimately the sector faces the challenge of shifting away from fossil fuels as a direct energy source.

The Green Transport Strategy (GTS) developed five years ago by the Department of Transport, even though a noble commitment to reducing GHG emissions and to minimise the adverse impact of transport on the environment, has fallen short of everything, except for isolated municipal interventions and pilot programmes in green buses, non-motorised transport and infrastructures designs for cycling etc. We, therefore, need to up the game, because we can.

Transport systems form the backbone of South Africa’s socio-economic activities despite an inheritance of a legacy of disintegrated systems resulting in the majority of citizens living far from work, and with inadequate infrastructure, an overburdened road network at the back of a near-collapsed rail system for passengers and cargo alike.

Whilst the multiplicity of challenges facing our transport ecosystem, soft (policy and governance) as well as hard (infrastructure, investments etc), are not as a result of climate change impact, they may as well be a preview of what can happen if we do not climate-proof our transport sector as we plan into the future.

One of the most effective ways of charting a course to net-zero for the transport sector is improved spatial planning through design of cities and transport infrastructure such that the total number of passenger-kilometres and cargo-kilometres travelled are minimised, through investing in electric vehicle charging at the right places and nodes, and through investment in green rapid city transport services, and healthy and eco interventions like cycling lanes and a motorised transport restriction in densely populated cities.

Sooner than later, the transport ecosystem will need to make strategic choices to set the country on a net-zero trajectory, to address the value chains already at risk in key sectors like automotive manufacturing, petrochemicals and chemicals, and mining, and to unlock critical reindustrialisation opportunities.

However, this enhanced ambition would need the support of all social partners, the auto sector, transport operators, the entirety of the transport value chain to develop a portfolio of policy and action measures to build resilience and achieve deep decarbonisation in the transport sectors.

As a country, we need to collectively embrace sustainability in transport, followed by policies and massive investments in industrialisation, infrastructure, and skills to enable the sector to contribute its fair share to combat climate change.

Mbulaheni Mbodi is Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) commissioner and labour representative of Numsa and national secretary of the National Shop Stewards Council at Eskom.