A New Perspective on Transport and Climate Change in Asia

Asian Development Bank - Transport
29 min readOct 29, 2021

I. Introduction

1.The IPCC 2021 report confirms that fossil fuel combustion for energy, industry and land transportation are the most significant contributing sectors on a 100-year time scale (high confidence) to climate change (IPCC, 2021). Since 2010, among all sectors, the transport sector had the highest intensity of CO2 emissions growth. Furthermore, across all global regions, transport carbon emissions grew fastest in Asia (Fig.1). This makes the transport sector in Asia of key importance when reviewing the future implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Figure 1: Growth of Transport Sector Emissions 1970–2019

Source: Authors using data from EDGAR Database and IPCC Sixth Assessment Report

2. The transport sector’s direct emissions from combustion fuels over the last five decades represent a rising share of total global emissions, both at the global level as well as in Asia. In 2018, the transport sector was responsible for 13% of total direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in the Asian economies. From 1990 to 2019, fossil fuel CO2 emissions have increased at an annual rate of 5.1%, 3.8%, 0.9% for low and lower middle income, upper middle income, and high-income Asian economies, respectively. Overall, the CO2 emissions from transport in Asia increased at an annual rate of 3.9%, which is much higher (double the rate) than the global transport emissions increase (1.9%). This increased intensity of growth within the transport sector in Asia, makes the transport sector therefor a priority sector for scaled up action on decarbonization.

3. At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) 21 in Paris on 12 December 2015, 196 Parties reached a consensus on a landmark legally binding agreement to combat climate change and accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low-carbon future. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

4. For a long time, and also since the Paris Agreement was concluded, the global narrative on transport sector decarbonisation has been characterized by two ostensibly contradictory messages. One is that the transport sector is difficult to decarbonise (thoroughly and fast enough) due to rapid mobility growth, especially in Asia (IEEP, 2003; IPCC AR4, 2007; Hoogwijk et al., 2008; Van der Zwaan et al., 2013; Pietzcker et al., 2014; IPCC AR5, 2014; UNEP Emission Gap Report, 2014; UNFCCC, 2015; ITF Transport Outlook, 2017; Shafiei et al., 2017). Thus, the transport sector could become a significant roadblock for the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement. The other message is that rapid decarbonisation is inevitable, and the transport sector has ample potential to decarbonise with existing and emerging technologies (Gota et al., 2019).

5. This paper synthesizes the most recent data on the growth of the transport sector in Asia and its contribution to climate change to better understand how these two messages apply to the Asian context. We evaluate historical trends and business as usual projections of Asia’s transport sector CO2 emissions, and review the policy landscape on the decarbonization of transport with the aim to offer policy insights to decision-makers, academics, and researchers on transportation and climate change in Asia. Specifically, this study seeks to answer the following questions: Will the Asian Transport system show inertia in the future in the realization of climate ambitions? What might be learned by combining insights from multiple transport emission modelling studies and reviewing current policy frameworks? To what extent is the policy landscape on transport and climate change in Asia aligned with the directions set by recent Business as Usual (BAU) transport emission modelling studies?

6. The cornerstone of this cross-national meta-analysis is the collation of different business-as-usual scenarios for the world and Asia to derive a new narrative on low-carbon transport in Asia that supports the development of short, medium, and long-term action to achieve optimal reductions from the transport sector. This research builds on the earlier analysis by Gota et al. (2019) that included a global meta-analysis of long-term transport sector emission pathways from over 500 bottom-up modelling estimates for 81 countries.

7. The research in this paper is grounded on the transport data and policy information collected in the Asian Transport Outlook (ATO) initiative, which supports the planning and delivery of transport sector assistance by ADB, as well as transport initiatives by Asian governments, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Paris Agreement, and other transport relevant international agreements.

8. The paper is organised as follows: The following section presents a brief discussion on drivers of transport CO2 emissions in Asia. It then presents a brief discussion on historical emission trends in the Asan transport sector, followed by a discussion on business-as-usual projections of transport demand and CO2 emissions. Our work does leave several important questions unanswered regarding emission growth intensity variation and heterogeneity of transport sector emission patterns across countries, between urban and rural areas and across modes.

II. Drivers of Transport CO2 Emissions in Asia

9. Transport carbon emissions are the result of a complex mix of factors that includes, amongst others, human behaviour, economic growth, public policy including transport regulations. Traditionally, transport demand is considered a derived demand, i.e., economic growth and its spatial distribution and demographics, infrastructure, and environmental policies shape the demand for transport. However, transport is also a crucial facilitator of economic activities, and higher incomes tend to lead to higher demand for passenger and freight transport. Transportation activity in passenger-kilometres and freight tonne-kilometres typically increases with economic activity and rising gross domestic product (GDP).

10. There is a strong consensus in the global literature that economic-demographic structure, transport activity, modal share, and CO2 emissions are strongly correlated (IPCC AR5, 2018). Interestingly, historically in Asia, transport activity in passenger-kilometres and freight tonne-kilometres is relatively decoupling with income, i.e., growing relatively more slowly compared with income.

11. Since 2000, Asian economies have outpaced the rest of the world in population growth, the intensity of economic growth, urbanisation, and infrastructure development (OECD, 2020).

12. As Asian economies continue to shift from agriculture to industry to service, the transport demand has risen considerably. As a result, since 2000, vehicle ownership has increased at an annual rate of 7.4%, proportionate to GDP growth (7.7%). Between 2000 and 2019, the road vehicle stock increased from about 310 million to about 1.2 billion vehicles. Motorised two and three-wheelers accounted for almost half of this stock. In many Asian economies, two and three-wheeler ownerships have already enjoyed high ownership levels well before significant increases in disposable incomes were realised.

Figure 2: Change in Population, GDP, and Transport sub-sector Trends 2000–2018

GDP = Gross Domestic Product; Km = Kilometers; CO2 = Carbon dioxide
Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database (ADB-ATO, 2021) indicators: SEC-DEV-001, SEC-SEG-001, INF-TTI-016, INF-TTI-006, TES-VEP-021, TAS-PAG-001, TAS-FRA-001 (accessed: 22 July 2021)

13. Historical research has estimated that vehicle ownership (car, bus, trucks) grows relatively slowly at the lowest GDP per capita, then about twice as fast as income at middle-income levels (from $3,000 to $10,000 per capita), and finally, about as quickly as income at higher income levels, before reaching its maximum level (“saturation”) at the highest levels of 600–800 vehicles per 1000 persons (car, bus, trucks) (Dargay et al., 2007). This historical pattern appears to be in question now in Asia. Recent trends from OICA Database indicates that passenger car sales have started levelling out in Asia since 2017, primarily in the leading markets of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and India.

14. Generally, car sales reduction in wealthy economies could be considered a product of high existing car ownership levels with slowing growth in population resulting in saturation in cars per capita. On the other hand, in the growing economies of Asia, where car sales are approaching peak level at much lower levels of GDP per capita this could be a result of a combination of reasons. In the case of the PRC, policy restrictions on car ownership in multiple cities have played a role. In certain Asian economies the high percentage of motorized 2–3 wheelers may have dampened demand for cars. In other cases, possible cultural shifts towards a shared economy play a role as well (Association of MBAs, 2021).

Figure 3: Passenger Car Sales in Asia/GDP (Major 16 economies in Asia)

GDP = Gross Domestic Product
Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database indicators: TAS-VEP-013, SEC-SEG-001 (accessed: 23 July 2021)

15. Since 2000, because of rapid economic growth and motorisation, the travel demand in passenger-kilometre travel and freight kilometre travel in Asia increased annually by about 4.8% and 4.7%, well below the 7.4% increase in vehicle ownership, indicating the role of population density, land use-spatial planning, and especially lower infrastructure availability, among other socio-economic factors. Road infrastructure in Asia grew only at 2.9% per year. Currently, per-capita passenger transport demand is still significantly lower in Asian economies when compared with average global and OECD activity. For example, on average, a person annually travels 4500 km in Asian economies while global and OECD average is about 6500 and 14600 km/year (ITF Outlook, 2019).

16. In contrast, the domestic freight demand per capita in Asian economies is significantly higher than the global average, i.e., 5200 km/year and 3600 km/year. One of the main reasons is the high freight transport intensity (tonne-km/GDP) in Asia compared with other regions (Shell, 2021) in addition, many Asian economies are at an early stage in their economic development. Therefore, they are still more dependent on the production and export of low-value commodities that must be moved in large quantities relative to GDP (ITF, 2015). At the same time, some Asian economies (ex-PRC, Vietnam) have rapidly industrialised and become global manufacturing hubs, thereby generating high freight activity per GDP and capita.

17. The development of road and other transport infrastructure in Asia could become a more important priority if Asian countries heed the transport infrastructure related Sustainable Development Goal targets. There are two main transport infrastructure related targets: SDG 9.1 “Develop quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and transborder infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all” and SDG 11.2: “By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons”. Successful implementation of these two targets will increase both transport infrastructure and transport demand.

18. Research indicates that poor access to economic and social opportunities in rural areas is a significant barrier to the socio-economic development of the rural areas. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 9.1 considers as an indicator “Proportion of the rural population who live within 2 km of an all-season road”. Currently, about half of the population in the Asian economies are rural dwellers. However, 630 million persons in the Asia Pacific region are still unconnected to a good quality road network (<2km of an all-season road).

19. In the Asian economies, urban residents have comparatively better access to road infrastructure and transport services mainly due to high urban population density. However, the latest Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 (SDG Report, 2020) indicates that only 34% of the urban population in Asia have convenient access to public transport while 50% urban population have access globally. Overall, there is also a significant disparity among economies regarding urban access when measured in access to public transit. Since 1990, only 10,000 km of rapid transit has been introduced in the Asian economies. 470 million urban populations still reside in bigger cities with population above 500,00 in Asia without access to even a single kilometre of rapid transit (BRT, Metro and LRT). At the national level, the development of heavy railways, important for providing an alternative for long distance car trips has stagnated, while High Speed Rail (HSR) shows a very strong growth, albeit from a low base.

20. As Asian countries will be successful in implementing transport infrastructure related SDG targets, transport demand will further increase. Key, in terms of environmental impact, will be the type of transport infrastructure and the future dependence on private motorized vehicles.

Figure 4: Public Transport Infrastructure Increase in Asian Economies

BRT = bus rapid transit; LRT = light rail transit; HSR = high-speed rail
Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database indicators: SEC-DEV-001, SEC-SEG-001, INF-TTI-005, INF-TTI-016, INF-UTI-001, INF-UTI-002, INF-UTI-003, INF-TTI-019 (accessed: 28 July 2021)

21. An essential consequence of the growing motorisation in Asia is rising greenhouse gas emissions. Asia’s rising transport sector CO2 emissions are often linked to a growing population with increasing disposable incomes generating higher transport demand. However, the sector’s continued near-total reliance on fossil fuels is also a significant determinant of the growing transport CO2 emissions trend. Data has shown that the transport fuel mix in Asia has barely changed in the last 20 years. It is likely that linked to the scaling up of electric vehicles that the share of electricity in the transport fuel mix will increase at the expense of diesel and gasoline. This increases the linkage between the transport and the energy sector, as the latter will have to ensure that the share of electricity generated from renewable sources increases to ensure that the shift towards electric vehicles will maximize decarbonization effects within the transport sector.

Figure 5: Trends in Transport Fuel Mix 2000–2018

Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database Indicators: CLC-VRE-002, CLC-VRE-010, CLC-VRE-009, CLC-VRE-009 (accessed: 28 July 2021)

III. Historical Transport CO2 Emissions

22. Traditional thinking has been that transport CO2 emissions are closely coupled with income growth. Therefore, all else equal, growing transport demand in Asia was expected to lead to proportional changes in emissions. However, both at the global level as well as in Asia a new trend can be observed. Since 2000, transport carbon emissions have grown slower than GDP. This reverse trend is most clear in the railway sector where the growth of emissions in Asia has been negative in the last decade.

23. Within the roads sector, most emissions are from light-duty vehicles and heavy-duty trucks. Two-and-three-wheelers which constitute about 50% of vehicle stock, contributes 5% of total transport CO2 emissions (ITF Outlook, 2021). However, there is a significant difference in mode-shares within Asian economies depending on several socio-economic factors. Among economies, PRC and India contribute close to 50% of Asian fossil transport CO2 emissions.

Figure 6: Asia CO2 Emissions — Mode Share (2015–2020)

2W = 2 wheelers; 3W = 3 wheelers
Source: ITF Transport Outlook 2021

24. Carbon emissions in the Asian economies transport sector are mainly from the road transport sector, with about 89% in 2018. The railways, domestic navigation, and domestic aviation have a share of 1.8%, 4.5% and 5.2%. In the period 1990 -2018, transport, road, domestic navigation, and domestic aviation fossil fuel emissions in Asia have increased at an annual rate of 3.9%, 2.7% and 3.2%. However, since 1990, the railway fossil CO2 emissions have been reduced at a yearly rate of 2%.

Figure 7: Trends in Transport CO2 Emissions 1990–2018

GDP = Gross Domestic Product; ATO = Asian Transport Outlook; CO2 = Carbon dioxide
Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database indicators: CLC-VRE-045, CLC-VRE-048, CLC-VRE-054, CLC-VRE-055, CLC-VRE-056, CLC-VRE-057 & SEC-SEG-001 (accessed: 4 Aug 2021)

25. Overall travel demand (passenger and freight) together with GDP have grown faster than transport CO2 emissions (Fig. 2). This is however not a uniform trend across all economies in Asia. Fig. 7 indicates that since 2000, close to 85% of Asian economies have increased their transport CO2 emissions slower than the GDP (relative decoupling). Especially in high income countries in Asia an absolute decoupling of emissions and GDP can be observed.

Figure 8: Decoupling of CO2 Emissions and GDP (Asia Pacific High Income Economies)

GDP = Gross Domestic Product; CO2 = Carbon dioxide
Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database indicators: CLC-VRE-048, SEC-SEG-001 (accessed: 4 Aug 2021)

IV. Business-as-Usual Projections in Transport Demand in Asia

26. Conventional BAU projections in Asia consider increased travel demand and continued dependence on fossil fuels as the main drivers of future CO2 emissions. But is this path set in stone?

27. A growing GDP and population, set the direction for the growth trajectory of Asian transport activity i.e., passenger and freight transport activities, under current trends and policies. Excluding ITF (2021), these current business-as-usual predictions were developed before COVID-19 and do not account for any change in transport travel characteristics due to the COVID crisis. Assuming existing pre-COVID policies, projections indicate that travel activity should return to pre-crisis activity levels with Asia’s mobility patterns simulating historic OECD transport activity trajectory.

28. Over the last five decades, every global region experienced a coupling of growing transport activity with growing income, resulting in increases in per-capita mobility and people shifting from active mobility/animal power to collective transport and ultimately to private transport. In OECD economies, increased vehicle ownership and travel shifts from collective transport to personal transport account for almost all the increase in per-capita CO2 emissions (World Bank, 2003). Asia’s future emissions will be determined by the extent to which Asia’s business-as-usual projections for travel demand replicate these historical OECD trends.

29. Figure 9 indicates that there is a considerable range in travel demand projections for Asia. These ranges are in part guided by assumptions on the growth of GDP, which between 2020 to 2050, could increase by 140%-300% (ICCT, n.d.; IEA, 2017; IEA, 2018; IPCC, 2014; Shell, 2021). This could result in passenger and freight demand growth of 90–160% and 20%-140%, respectively. These GDP and population growth driven projections do not take into account dedicated efforts to manage transport demand business-as-usual scenario. Thus, by 2050, passenger activity and freight activity in Asia could be in the range of 35–54 trillion passenger-kilometres travel and 28–55 trillion tonne-kilometers, respectively. Thus, Asia would become the largest generator of transport demand globally, by a significant margin even under the more pessimistic growth scenarios.

Figure 9: Trends in Passenger Transport (PKM) and Freight Transport (TKM) 2000–2050

PKM = passenger kilometres-travel; Max = maximum; Min = minimum; km = kilometers
Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database indicators: TAS-PAG-007. TAS-FRA-008 (accessed: 25 July 2021)

30. Among modes, domestic passenger aviation and domestic freight shipping would grow more rapidly when compared with other modes. However, details of the modal split and growth intensity are expected to vary significantly among Asian economies driven by social, economic and geographic factors. These aspects would be discussed in upcoming Asian Transport Outlook knowledge outputs based on a meta-analysis of country demand projections.

31. In the historic business-as-usual projections, presented above, travel demand growth in Asia, in the case of passenger transport, is assumed to be triggered by a substantial increase in the number of households that become wealthier and gain access to individual motorised transport modes, especially cars. In the case of freight transport, continued economic growth is associated with an increase in, especially road based freight activity. In both cases the BAU projections are characterized by inertia towards a shift away from fossil fuels. These scenarios generally discount any possible exponential disruption in the transport system in terms of activity level, modal distribution and dominant combustion technology. However, “leapfrogging” in terms of both technology and infrastructure in high population-density Asian economies could significantly separate future demand growth from business-as-usual trajectories. The observed trend of approaching peak car sales at a relatively low GDP level, coupled with rapid penetration of technologies (ex: electric) and advanced public transit infrastructure with land-use planning at lower income levels could stem the future vehicle activity growth and prevent the development trajectory emulating the same pattern of motorisation development as seen historically in the western OECD economies. For example, Asian economies are already building metro systems and high-speed rail networks at the lowest income levels (ADB-ATO, 2021b) ,resulting in 59% of global metro systems being located in Asia and 76% of high-speed rail networks. In 2000, only 3% of the population in Asia could access the internet. Currently, close to 50% of individuals use the internet in Asian economies. Now, close to 97% of the existing electric vehicle fleet is in Asia (IEA, 2021). If these trends continue and further intensify, these could have far-reaching implications for future transport demand in Asia.

V. Business-as-Usual Projections in Transport Carbon Emissions in Asia

32. A typical challenge is that business-as-usual transport CO2 estimates for Asia, like for other global regions, published by different agencies have a varied scope, assumptions and data sources. Therefore, to make rational comparisons, the growth rates from individual studies are computed and imposed upon the historical baseline (2019) derived for the 51 economies in the Asia and the Pacific region to derive various modified business-as-usual transport CO2 trajectories for Asia.

33. These scenarios for transport emissions in Asia suggest different, though not mutually exclusive directions of growth. Business-as-usual Transport CO2 Emissions (ICCT, n.d.; IEA, 2017; Kitous, et al., 2017; Keramidas, et al., 2018) in 2050 in Asia range from 8.3 Gt to 1.7Gt with an average of about close to 5Gt. Before 2017, the average business-as-usual transport CO2 emissions in 2050 was 6.8 Gt, while since 2017, it is 4.4 Gt, or a 37% reduction indicating a downward shift in business-as-usual transport CO2 in Asia, especially in more recent years.

34. Achieving the Paris Agreement objectives of pursuing efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will require steep reductions in carbon emissions from all sectors and regions. The interpretation of the magnitude of reductions needed in the transport sector by 2050 is still evolving. Early indications indicate that by 2050, global transport sector CO2-equivalent emissions should be around 2Gt to ensure consistency with limiting temperature change to 1.5°C (Gota, et al., 2019; ICCT, 2020). However, it is plausible that the transport sector burden could be higher depending on all sectors and regions’ near-time reductions and performance. For the transport sector in Asia, bending the business-as-usual domestic transport (i.e. excluding shipping and aviation) CO2 emissions trajectory along the 1.5°C direction of travel would entail 90% reductions by 2050 i.e., from 5Gt in 2050 to 0.5 Gt (Keramidas, et al., 2020). This is aligned with the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC global GHG emissions stating that countries need to peak in the following decade and reduce emissions beyond 50% in 2050 compared to 1990 levels to avoid dangerous CO2 levels. As can be seen in Fig. 10, the COVID pandemic has an impact on the transport related CO2 emissions. The lasting impact on future BAU transport CO2 emissions will be determined by the manner in which Asian countries will be able to bring the pandemic under control.

Figure 10: Transport CO2 Emissions Projections

BAU = business-as-usual; ICCT = International Council on Clean Transportation; ITF = International Transport Forum; GECO = Global Energy and Climate Outlook; APEC = Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation; ReMAP = Renewable Energy Roadmaps; IEA = International Energy Agency; ETP = Energy Transition Perspective; GCAM = Global Change Assessment Model; TRL = Transportation Research Laboratory; CAA = Clean Air Asia; ITPS = Institute for Transportation Policy Studies
Source: Authors

35. The 2050 business-as-usual domestic transport emissions for Asia have already deviated by more than one-third (37%). However, further enhancing ambition to realize the 90% deviation from the already scaled down BAU projections will require a combination of further behavioural change resulting in further reduced activity levels and changes in the modal structure of transport as well as a very significant penetration of zero emission technologies and supportive infrastructure. In all cases, the required reductions will require a massive uptake in enabling policies and behavioural change leading to transformational change.

36. An important element in the reduced transport BAU CO2 projections and the further reduction of transport CO2 emissions is the shift towards electric mobility. International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2009 under a very ambitious scenario — “blue map” estimated that globally, by 2020, sales of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles to exceed one million per year. The “blue map” sets the goal of halving global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050 (compared to 2005 levels) and examines the least-cost means of achieving that goal through the deployment of existing and new low-carbon technologies which, in transport, is equivalent to 200$/tonne of reduction. The latest estimates by IEA indicate that sales of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles (excluding two-three-wheelers & fuel cell electric vehicles) in the PRC alone was 1.3 million in 2020. Globally, sales exceeded 4.5 million vehicles. Close to 97% of the global electric vehicle stock is in Asia (IEA, 2020; DNV, 2020) , and research indicates that Asia’s direct and indirect government subsidies on electric vehicles now match fossil fuel subsidies (DNV, 2020). Fig. 11 shows that in Asian developing countries the tipping point has been crossed for some vehicle types and uses when CAPEX/OPEX of ICE and e-mobility are compared. About half of the countries in Asia have now set some form of e-mobility related national targets or are putting in place national level incentives to stimulate the uptake of electric vehicles. (ADB-ATO, 2021)

Figure 11: Total Cost of Ownership between Conventional and Electric Vehicles ($)

CAPEX = capital expenditure; CNG = Compressed Natural Gas; DMC = developing member country; kWh = kilowatt-hour; Calculations based on average DMC fuel prices and an average electricity price of 0.16 $/kWh; CAPEX includes battery replacement during vehicle lifetime based on average battery life span with 50% of current battery prices
Source: E-Mobility Options for ADB Developing Member Countries, Asian Development Bank (2019). http://dx.doi.org/10.22617/WPS190075-2

VI. The Landscape of Low Carbon Transport Policies and Targets in Asia

37. Under the Kyoto protocol in 1997 (UNFCCC, n.d.) four Asian economies developed their economy-wide emission target for the first time. By 2010, 15 Asian economies had committed to economy-wide emission targets, and by 2015, following the Paris Agreement, all Asian economies can be assumed to have some form of economy-wide emission targets as the agreement dictates that all parties, including non-Annex 1 countries, will now need to commit to reductions. Recently, a number of Asian countries have stated, either as a formal objective, or as a more general statement of intent that they intend to be carbon neutral or have net-zero emissions by 2050 or shortly thereafter. In an ideal scenario, economy-wide emission targets should result in a proportionate impact on the transport sector. However, economies have not optimised the sector contributions of economy-wide emission targets (Gota, et al., 2015) . As a result, the implications of such economy-wide targets have been in-direct but essential to the deviation of business-as-usual transport CO2 estimates. Over the period 1990–2019, close to 63% of Asian economies reduced their transport sector annual emission growth rates after establishing an economy-wide emission target. However, the impact was higher in other sectors.

38. While we currently lack the disaggregated data to speculate on country-level modal intensities, efficiencies, and interpretation of transport emission mitigation policies in terms of helping to explain the downward shift in BAU transport CO2 emissions, we have collated detailed country-level data on individual policies and targets (ADB-ATO, 2021). Overall the number of low carbon transport policies and targets is increasing in Asia. We differentiate in observing whether policies and targets exist and what the stated level of ambition is. Especially the latter is important to determine whether countries in Asia are becoming better positioned to realize the ambitious 90% reduction by 2050 resulting in 0.5Gt emissions by 2050.

39. Effective transport decarbonisation policies often start with general statements of ambition. Ideally this is followed by a science based, legally binding emission reduction target for the sector. This in turn is followed by a series of sub-sector strategies or action plans that are each supported by dedicated policy instruments. Countries do not necessarily adhere to the sequence in policy making described here.

40. For a growing number of Asian countries medium — to long- term vision statements for the transport sector are available, from a range of different types of policy documents, that incorporates environmental sustainability, with a smaller number of countries incorporating specific references to climate change.

Figure 12: Word Cloud — Key Elements for the long-term Transport Vision Statements (Asia Pacific Economies)

Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database indicator POL-VIS-002 Available: https://data.adb.org/media/8266/download (accessed: 14 July 2021)

41. The formal integration of climate change in transport policy, as well as the scale of climate action in the transport sector in Asia is hampered by the limited availability of comprehensive transport policies and the limited frequency in updating stated policies. Only 30 countries out of 51 Asian countries have a formal, sector wide transport policy. Out of these 30 policies, 13 were adopted before 2016 when the Paris Agreement was concluded. Of the 17 transport policies adopted since the Paris Agreement was concluded only 5 have a more than passing coverage of climate change. Overall, transport policies in Asia are not yet climate inclusive.

42. Climate ambition in the transport sector is often equated with the number and type of references to climate action on transport in their Long Term Emission Reduction Strategies (LTSs) and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted on a periodic basis to the UNFCCC as an indication of intent to act. Till now only 6 countries in Asia have submitted an LTS (Indonesia, Japan, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Republic of Korea and Singapore). Generally, the coverage of transport is through listing various mitigation activities and scenarios for their role out. No quantified emission reduction targets for the transport sector are provided with the exception of Japan.

43. Till now, only 14 out of the 51 economies included in the ATO have set quantified CO2 emission reduction targets specifically for the transport sector, either through their NDC or Long LTS or other policy documents. Where such targets have been set it is usually not specified how they fit in with 2050 economy wide decarbonization objectives aligned with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Where transport emission reduction targets exist they are also not differentiated by sub-sector.

44. Initial NDCs were submitted in 2015 prior to COP21 which resulted in the adoption of the Paris Agreement. In almost all the first generation NDCs submitted by Asian countries, (44 out of 49) transport is acknowledged as a sector where action will be taken. A clear majority (36) of the initial NDCs, submitted in 2015 lists a number of envisaged mitigation activities in the transport sector.

45. In preparation of COP26 in 2021 all parties to the UNFCCC were invited to submit enhanced ambition NDCs. In the case of Asia this resulted in 27 updated or second generation NDCs. A small number of the updated NDCs (4) show increased ambition on transport by including or raising transport related emission reduction targets. In a much larger number of cases (11), additional mitigation activities in the transport sector are now included in the updated NDCs.

46. A welcome development is also that a growing number of countries make reference in their updated NDC to accompanying documents in which more detail on the planned decarbonization of transport is given. A number of Asian countries have initiated the development of dedicated low carbon transport strategies or action plans (This includes but is not limited to Bhutan, Lao PDR, and Malaysia. Via personal communication to the authors.).

47. Overall, climate change is not yet an overarching priority in transport policy in Asia and that linked to this ambition levels on the decarbonization of transport as expressed in NDCs and LTSs are either not well defined or limited in scope. This is however not the whole picture when it comes to the policy landscape on low carbon transport. As in the case of Europe, more comprehensive policy action on low carbon transport in Asia is being preceded by a series of more ad hoc policies. These can be at the national or at the sub-national level as is shown below.

48. Asian countries have in common that they have been able to very rapidly scale up internet use (see Fig. 13). Policy in this respect is also highly ambitious across Asia as is documented in the Asian Transport Outlook. Several countries are aiming for 100% access in the near future (The following countries have targets of 90% or above access to the internet: Kyrgyzstan (100%); Nauru (100%); Tonga (100%); Tuvalu (100%)) (ADB-ATO, 2021).

Figure 13: Share of Individuals using the Internet in Asia Pacific

Source: Asian Transport Outlook Database indicator: INF-ICT-001 Available: https://data.adb.org/media/7511/download (accessed: 28 July 2021)

49. Another example of leapfrogging and rapid scaling up of low carbon policy in transport is High Speed Rail (HSR). Initially, starting in the 1960’s, Japan was the only country with HSR. Over the last 10 years, PRC has established by far the largest HSR network, with 40,000 km’s in place and 30,000 km’s planned. More recently Australia, India, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Taipei,China, PRC, Thailand, Viet Nam, and the Russian Federation have either deployed HSR or are in the process of doing so or expanding initial networks.

50. Traditionally, Asian countries have been subsidizing the use of fossil fuels in the transport sector, but in 2019 subsidies for electric vehicles were almost at par already with transport oil subsidies (Fig. 14) this a consequence to lower oil prices, a change in policy on fossil fuel subsidies in key countries and a rapid emergence of subsidies for electric vehicles. ATO research has documented that a large number of Asian countries have recently established targets on electric vehicles (Policy Workbook Indicator POL-TAR-009) (ADB-ATO, 2021). In addition to these national level EV targets, we also see a large number of sub-national EV targets (NRDC, 2020; Covington, 2021; TMG, n.d.).

Figure 14: Transport Oil and Electric Vehicle Subsidies (2019)

Source: (IEA, 2020b); (DNV, 2019)

51. A final example of policy action in one specific area is fuel economy. Fig. 15 shows the gradual improvement in fuel economy that can be observed for light duty vehicles in Asia.

Figure 15: Fuel Economy of Light Duty Vehicles in Asia 2005–2019

Sources: (UNEP, 2020)

VII. Conclusion

52. Our review suggests that the decarbonization of transport in Asia might not be the problematic case it is believed to be by many. Both at the global, and the Asia level, the more recent (after 2017) BAU projections for 2050 transport CO2 emissions in Asia are considerably lower than the earlier ones which still dominated discussions on transport and climate change at COP 21 in Paris when the Paris Agreement was discussed and agreed upon.

53. Contributing to these revised BAU projections are changes in the drivers of Transport CO2 emissions. Car sales in Asia are approaching a peak at a lower GDP per capita level. Asia is also moving towards advanced public transport systems (HSR, metro) at lower GDP per capita. As a consequence, PKT per capita in Asia are well below those of developed OECD countries.

54. Future, lower BAU projections on transport and climate change in Asia are also linked to rapid advances in the development and deployment of electric mobility. This is not limited to electric cars but also includes electric two and three wheelers, busses, as well as the electrification of railways. In all cases, we see a rapid uptake in different parts of Asia. This uptake will be further accelerated as the tipping point in terms of total cost of ownership (purchase plus operating costs) for more types of electric vehicles in Asia will be reached due to continued lowering of battery costs.

55. In discussing the future of transport and climate change in Asia it is important, however, to understand that in comparison to e.g. Europe and the USA transport demand is expected to grow substantially between 2020 and 2050, in an average scenario more than 100% for both passenger and freight transport. This increase in transport demand is directly linked with the implementation of several transport related SDG targets. This growth in transport demand is, however, included in the new, lower, BAU projections.

56. We argue that the medium and long term opportunities for decarbonising transport in Asia are greater than in western OECD economies for three critical reasons. First, Asia is still building its transport infrastructure, offering far more opportunities for building climate-friendly transport infrastructure. Second, contrary to previous projections, Asia did not yet commit irreversibly to a transport system built around individual private mobility (cars) compared to some western OECD economies. Transport demand will grow in future due to the growing income and population. However, the motorisation scale and pace are not definitive, indicating the possibility of expanding transport demand more sustainably. Third, technologies are now available that are far more efficient than those generally in use in the Asian countries or those available when the western OECD economies had the incomes of today’s Asian economies.

57. For these theoretical opportunities to materialize it will however be important to strengthen policy making on transport and climate change. We demonstrated, that while mitigation of climate change in the transport sector is not yet an overarching priority in Asia, that the building blocks are clearly starting to emerge on which such a more comprehensive approach could be based. At the point that climate change is becoming a more dominant theme in transport policy it can also be expected that action on the decarbonization of transport will become more concrete in the NDCs and LTSs submitted by Asian countries to the UNFCCC. At present transport is well covered in NDCs and LTSs but, in part because of the structure of these documents, sectoral references are generic and lack quantified objectives. In some countries the formulation of dedicated low carbon transport strategies or action plans is an important bridging step towards more climate inclusive transport policies and transport inclusive NDCs and LTSs.

58. The process of more comprehensive and more ambitious low carbon transport policies in Asia can be helped by two parallel processes. First, Asia needs to take transport policy more serious and all countries in Asia should aim to have regularly updated transport policies in place. If there is no overarching transport in place it is not possible to mainstream climate change. Second, Asian countries are gradually moving towards the adoption of mid-century, or shortly thereafter, targets or objectives that call for carbon neutrality or net zero emissions. At the same time, short -, medium — and long term emission reduction scenarios and targets are required for the transport sector as well as for transport sub-sectors and individual modes of transport. These different types of targets can guide the development of various detailed policies and actions by national and local governments as well as the private sector and they can help pull together all of these individual actions into a coherent low carbon transport policy.
59. We set out to write this paper with the question whether the decarbonization of transport in Asia is an illusion. This question was fed by the repeated references to the difficulties in decarbonizing transport, especially in Asia. We observe that, even in a still relatively weak policy environment significant changes in transport emissions trajectory in Asia are now evident with an expected reduction in BAU transport emissions of 37%. Taking also into account also the various positive policy examples of low carbon transport policies we conclude that it is time to consider, a new and less pessimistic perspective of transport and climate change in Asia. The path to transport decarbonisation in Asia may be slightly less challenging than would have appeared several years ago. This offers great potential for development organizations like the Asian Development Bank to reorient their assistance to the transport sector in Asia and ensure that it will become more aligned with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

60. An immediate lack of current emission performance does not in itself suggest future failure. Within the Transport sector, systemic change tends to be exponential, i.e., slowly and suddenly after the tipping point. Evidence indicates a slow penetration of technologies over the last few years, efficient infrastructure, and policies at the lowest income levels resulting in significant changes in emissions trajectory. We conclude, perhaps over optimistically, that developing ambitious targets for the transport sector, strengthening policies, developing infrastructure, and addressing barriers can make it possible to bend the emission curve towards the 1.5-degree target while absorbing the growing demand for mobility in Asia.

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